A GP leader is calling on District Health Boards to divert some of its hospital staff to general practices in a bid to keep people away from emergency departments during the Omicron outbreak.
It comes after a senior doctors union urged the Government to declare a health workforce emergency, saying New Zealand needed 1500 more hospital specialists, 1400 GPs and 12,000 nurses to match Australia per capita.
Royal New Zealand College of General Practioners (RNZCGP) medical director, Bryan Betty, said when general practices were at capacity or under resourced as we have seen, EDs tended to get clogged up.
"Some of the DHBs need to think very hard about if they want their general practices to stand up then they need to put extra resource into general practice, nursing in particular," Betty said.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson, who spoke on behalf of the DHBs, said work was underway to understand the likely impact of Omicron on our health system and the best way to manage our response.
The spokesperson outlined the importance of ensuring there were enough ICU beds available, estimating that 550 could be needed, but declined to answer whether it would divert hospital staff to general practices.
While Betty didn't think an emergency declaration was needed, he said in order to take the pressure of hospitals, general practices needed to be better resourced.
General practices needed to be part of the planning to manage this highly contagious new variant of Covid-19, he said.
The GP profession had seen major staffing shortages in the last few years and it has escalated with Covid, Betty said.
New Zealand had also been far behind Australia in terms of the number of GPs available per capita, Betty said.
In New Zealand, there was about 76 GPs per 100,000 people. In comparison, Australia had about 120 per 100,000, Betty said.
He expected a significant upswing of demand for health advice from GPs as anxiety about Omicron circulated.
With many GPs likely to become infected with the virus and be forced to isolate, virtual consults would become more common, Betty said.
He said increased demand would mean deferred referrals and longer wait times.
"We will have to focus on acute respiratory illness and business as usual issues may actually go on the back-burner which becomes a very big problem down the track," Betty said.
The ministry's spokesperson said significant work had been undertaken by all DHBs, co-ordinated nationally by the Ministry of Health, to prepare for both managing Covid-19 in the community and any surge in case numbers.
"This includes DHBs undertaking preparedness plans including regional planning to share skills, resources and how to coordinate responses," they said.
DHBs have identified staffing needs and are providing training and refresher courses for staff from across their organisations for this purpose, the spokesperson said.
Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) executive director Sarah Dalton yesterday told the Herald senior doctors had never seen working conditions so bad and had a lot of anxiety about the weeks ahead.
Emergency departments (ED) regularly operated at well over 120 per cent capacity and the situation had magnified over the holiday period, Dalton said.
Patients in some EDs were left waiting up to eight hours just to be seen and others spent hours in ambulance bays waiting to be triaged, she said.
"Then there are those who didn't wait and left hospital without their health needs being met – many of whom were mental health patients.
"We are told seeing people sitting in ED corridors clutching their chest and looking unwell while waiting to be assessed is a common occurrence," Dalton said.
The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), which represents about 5000 doctors, had joined ASMS in their calls for a health workforce emergency declaration.
Despite their best efforts, doctors are not being resourced or supported to provide a level of care New Zealanders have expected in the past, NZMA chair Alistair Humphrey said.
"Many patients are having to wait to weeks or more to see a GP. As a consequence, some patients are presenting to after hours clinics and emergency departments, where the waiting times in busy periods can be pushed up many hours.
"This is compounded by health staff having to put on and carefully take off PPE between patients – consultations are now taking much longer, even if they would have usually been relatively short.
"Covid-19 will not be the last, nor even the most-deadly pandemic. Now is the time to recognise and invest in our hard-working health professionals for the important work they do to protect the health of New Zealanders," Humphrey said.