Multiple Sclerosis patients in Whanganui face long waits for neurology, ophthalmology and physiotherapy appointments.

The Whanganui District Health Board has struggled to recruit ophthalmologists and physiotherapists, increasing wait times for patients.

The DHB revealed the waiting times for ophthalmology, physiotherapy and MRI appointments after an official information request from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New Zealand.

As at April this year, the wait for a routine MRI was three weeks, much shorter than in other areas such as Lakes and Canterbury where some patients were waiting six months.


Neurology services for Whanganui patients were provided by MidCentral DHB in Palmerston North, where the average waiting time for an initial appointment was 43 days.

Multiple Sclerosis Society of New Zealand vice-president Neil Woodhams said the organisation had heard of much longer waiting times to see neurologists for further appointments.

"In Palmerston North, we have reports of people waiting 15 months for a follow-up.

"Delays can mean that a person with MS cannot access the treatment they desperately need in a timely manner which may result in disease progression and disability."

The wait to see a physiotherapist or ophthalmologist in Whanganui was even longer, due to staff shortages.

"WDHB non-urgent physiotherapy patients are having to wait around 20 to 30 working days to be seen," the DHB's physiotherapy clinical coordinator Carol Ramsden said.

The wait for urgent cases was about three weeks, she added.

"This is longer than we would like but regrettably, like many DHBs, we are experiencing difficulty in recruiting new staff."

Whanganui DHB chief medical officer Dr Frank Rawlinson said last month the district's only ophthalmologist, who was due to leave, was unable to work due to injury.

The organisation put a great deal of effort into attempting to recruit two fulltime ophthalmologists but found none, he said.

A worldwide shortage of ophthalmologists contributed to this, according to the DHB.

Mr Woodhams said the waiting times for people to see a neurologist were unacceptable.

He believed the delays were caused by under-resourcing of the specialty because of a lack of funding.

"New Zealand only has 37 fulltime equivalent neurologists employed in DHBs across the country. This figure is a disgrace," he said.

An article in the New Zealand Medical Journal in August 2015 found 74 fulltime neurologists were needed to cope with demand at that time, with the pressure only expected to increase.

"DHBs need to allocate more funding to employ and retain both New Zealand-trained and international neurologists," Mr Woodhams said.

"The latest evidence is that the sooner you are diagnosed and the sooner you get on to treatment, the more likely the drugs that are available in New Zealand for treating MS will be successful.

"Any undue delays in diagnosis - that means not just an appointment with the neurologist but access to MRIs, access to ophthalmology - is not desirable."

Pharmac now also required an annual review and MRI scan for MS patients on funded-treatments which was only increasing the workload for neurologists, he said.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Ian Powell said he was aware there was an undersupply of neurologist positions in public hospitals.

"These are not so much advertised positions but positions not advertised leaving existing staff to cover.

"This means overstretched neurologists, delays in specialist assessments and delays in necessary follow-up treatment."

About Multiple Sclerosis:

- MS is a progressive disease of the central nervous system, for which there is no cure at present
- MS affects 2.3 million people worldwide
- About 4000 New Zealanders live with the disease
- More women than men have MS, with a global ratio of three women to one man
- Diagnosis of MS is generally between the ages of 20 and 40, although onset may be earlier
- MS attacks the nervous system. Symptoms can include sight loss, pain, fatigue, incontinence and disability.