Surgeons say they’re forced to decide which cancer patients to treat

Thu, Mar 16
A stoush has erupted with Te Whatu Ora over whether cancer operations are being cut.

Surgeons at Christchurch Hospital claim they're being forced to decide which patients have the worst cancer and would die if their surgery is delayed.

The specialists are now in a dispute with health officials over whether cancer operations are being cut. Cancer patients expecting surgery at Christchurch Hospital are being made to wait longer, according to several surgeons that 1News spoke to.

"The surgeons are beside themselves," doctor Frank Frizelle said.

"Having to go and tell patients who have got cancer - who have things that are impairing their quality of life - that they can't treat them. They're having to wait, they're having to cancel them, often on the day or the day before."

From Monday, surgeon Chris Wakeman says doctors are being forced to merge three cancer surgery lists into one.

"We need leadership to stand up and declare a crisis," he told 1News. "From a general surgical colorectal point of view, over 50% of our normal capacity's been decreased."

Te Whatu Ora Waitaha, formerly the Canterbury District Health Board, refused to have an on-camera interview with 1News but provided a statement.

It said all acute cancer and non-deferrable surgeries are still going ahead in Canterbury and that it's delivered 73% of planned surgeries in the year to date.

The agency said it expected that rate of delivery to continue.

But surgeon Frank Frizelle is frustrated and says the comment is "complete bollocks" and "bullshit".

Christchurch Hospital.

"It's this sort of thing that frustrates surgeons," he said. "We see it every day that they're not going ahead, they've been cancelled, postponed, delayed.

"This sort of comment comes out of someone who's not actually aware of what's going on, because it's a politically correct thing for them to say, to keep the politicians off their back. The reality is [it's] not happening."

At the heart of this latest issue at the hospital are long-standing problems with anaesthetic technicians. 1News understands that the workplace, which currently has 29 vacancies, has bullying issues.

Wakeman said it was clear that parts of the hospital's workforce were down on numbers.

"People seem to be declining or resigning constantly at the moment - over seven in the last two weeks," he said.

Now patients could be waiting up to six weeks for their care. The surgeon said that the delays, in some instances like certain bowel cancer situations, could potentially be life-threatening.

"If you come from a bowel cancer point of view, if you block your bowel out, for instance.

"If it grows and you get a complete obstruction, you go from an elective procedure to an emergency need to be done within four hours type of procedure," Wakeman told 1News.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall told 1News that she acknowledges how distressing and challenging the situation is.

She said Te Whatu Ora is working through the recommendations made by the Government's Planned Care Taskforce in order to reduce waitlists.

TVNZ apologises to the staff at Christchurch Hospital’s Department of Anaesthesia for wrongfully naming them in the original version of this story. The issue is not with anaesthetists, rather the anaesthetic technician workforce.