The Government has launched a winter health plan it says will tackle hospital demand by putting more emphasis on care at home and in the community.
The Opposition says it supports parts of the plan but questions where the workforce is to implement it, with shortages throughout the health system - a view backed by the nursing union.
The plan takes on lessons learned throughout the Covid-19 response, including increasing free access to telehealth services, the ability for pharmacies to treat minor ailments and dispensing free medications and hospital services at peoples’ homes.
Newly-established public health agency Te Whatu Ora is leading the plan, which includes 24 initiatives to help reduce hospital demand.
Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said she was confident the plan would help people get the care they needed over winter.
“The system [last winter] did well, but people did have to wait for care too long. And we want to improve that. That’s what these measures are designed to do. Let people get care in the community, so they don’t need to be in hospital.”
It comes amid huge pressures on the health system driven by an aging and growing population with increasingly complicated health problems, exacerbated by the pandemic.
The problem is not unique to New Zealand, with similar pressures overseas including in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Verrall said a major part of the plan was to address congestion in the health system, particularly in emergency departments where people often end up unnecessarily.
It would also help ensure professional services were better utilised.
“This winter, a reformed health system is allowing us to identify successful local programmes and scale them across the country, tailoring any health care approach to meet unique needs.”
Coordinated at a national level the health system would be better prepared to respond locally and connect people and services better, with enhanced real-time data sharing, she said.
“Resources will be shared across health facilities within a region, with providers working together.
“They will deliver health services to people closer to where they live, ultimately alleviating additional pressure on our hospitals.”
One example that would assist those in more rural areas was greatly expanding telehealth services and virtual consultations.
These also include Healthline, 1737 and depression.org, all of which became very popular throughout the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Pharmacies would also be funded to treat minor ailments and dispense free medications and access to community radiology services increased.
Verrall said they would be running a campaign to promote these initiatives.
The plan also sought to increase vaccination for Covid-19 and winter illnesses such as flu but also childhood immunisation, which have dropped to record lows.
The initiatives in the plan were fully funded with $180 million from the Covid contingency fund and from Te Whatu Ora’s baseline funding.
National Party health spokesman Dr Shane Reti said he supported some of the 24 points - such as around pharmacy care and community radiology - but questioned where the workforce was to implement them.
“I think it is better to try this, but it is too little too late.”
He said pharmacists were only put on the green list fast-track immigration plan last month yet were a major part of the winter plan.
“Nurses also only came onto fast-track residency just before Christmas. So yes, of course we need to be to be doing things, but we’re kind of late to get the workforce side of it.”
New Zealand Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said pushing services out into the community to alleviate hospital overcrowding was good in theory but would only work if the people and resources were available to do that.
“Sadly we know that the greatest problem we have right now is a lack of personnel and my fear is that this will only exacerbate the problem we have where the quality of health services you receive depends on your postcode.”
Nuku said that while the winter plan included some good initiatives, it failed to address the heart of the matter which was the nursing shortage and the recognition of the value of the nursing workforce.
“This winter will be especially challenging and we need to get beyond making adjustments that shift the burden and keep focusing on real and lasting solutions: valuing nurses and doing everything we can to recruit more.”
Many of the points in the plan were already in place, he said and did not need the centralisation of the health system to expand their scope.
Verrall said they acknowledged workforce shortages but these initiatives were also about better utilising, modernising, services that already existed and making them more accessible.
“We continue to take recruitment really seriously. But we also need to plan to make sure the health system runs well this winter.”