Fifty complaints related to the coronavirus pandemic have been made to the country's health watchdog since before the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in New Zealand.

The complaints to the Health and Disability Commissioner cover delays in GP referrals to hospital specialists, cancelled or delayed treatments and procedures, and lack of visiting rights to support patients in hospitals and rest homes.

The information comes after the Herald revealed yesterday Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill has written to Health Minister David Clark outlining serious concerns about patients with cancer and other potentially urgent conditions being sent back to their GPs because of the pandemic response.

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Hill said between February 3 and April 20 his office had received 50 complaints relating to health responses around the pandemic.

Complaints made also included:

• Access to primary care.

• Access to testing for Covid-19.

• Infection-control protocols.

Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill says the Code of Rights still applies during a pandemic and he is concerned about patients being referred back to GPs. Photo / Supplied
Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill says the Code of Rights still applies during a pandemic and he is concerned about patients being referred back to GPs. Photo / Supplied

The 50 complaints represented 10 per cent of the total complaints made to the office during that period.

The HDC would now assess the complaint issues and decide whether any would be investigated.

Hill said they may or may not be substantiated.

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He said the Code of Health and Disability Consumers' Rights continued to apply to health and disability services during the pandemic.

Yesterday, the Herald revealed Hill sent a rare letter to Clark outlining his concerns about the stagnation of elective surgeries and access to specialist treatment in hospitals because of Covid-19.

Hill said the consequences would be particularly serious for patients where early diagnosis and treatment was key to survival, including cancer and coronary disease.

"Deferring or declining patient referrals which would be accepted under normal circumstances and have followed appropriate health pathways carries potentially serious consequences for patient safety," Hill wrote.

He said a solution was imperative so that resulting health risk stayed visible to the system.

"Referring patients back to primary care, who were accepted for surgery that has subsequently been cancelled, is not appropriate."

The commissioner called for clear and consistent decision-making across all district health boards to ensure all New Zealanders had the maximum access possible under the current circumstances.

Hill said Clark had requested ministry officials to respond on the matters raised "as a matter of urgency".

In a statement yesterday, Clark said he would respond to Hill directly in due course.

"As he acknowledges in his letter, there is work underway by the Ministry and DHBs to address the issues he's raised and I expect to have more to say on this very soon."

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On the same day, NZ Medical Association chairwoman Kate Baddock, a GP in Warkworth, told the Epidemic Response Committee patients who need colonoscopies and other investigative treatment were being declined by hospitals.

She read an extract of a DHB response on patient referral to the committee.

"Due to the recent Covid-19 outbreak, we are unable to continue providing outpatient appointments for non-urgent patients.

"As a result of this, we have had to cancel our outpatient appointment and we are returning your patient to your care," she read.

"This is happening over and over again," Baddock said. "Just being stopped by the hospitals from being seen at all and as a consequence, the outpatient clinics are empty."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website