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Why I refused to go to the hospital

I recently [probably] broke my toe but – much to the dismay of those around me – I wouldn’t go to the emergency department [ED].

Why’s that? Glad you asked.

Last month, the New Zealand Herald reported a mental health patient spent 94 hours waiting in the ED of Auckland Hospital because there were no beds available in the psychiatric unit.

Last November, Stuff reported hundreds of people were spending 24 hours or longer in EDs each month, “suggesting a staggering level of dysfunction across the health system which poses a serious risk to patients”.

Almost 600 people waited 24 hours in an ED in August 2022, up from 160 in August 2021 – a number getting progressively worse each month, according to data provided by National Party health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti.

And in February last year, the Times-Age reported that Wairarapa Hospital was experiencing worsened staff shortages, resulting in longer ED wait times while the omicron variant of covid-19 ran rife.

At the time, Wairarapa DHB chief executive Dale Oliff said staffing was increasingly challenging, placing “a lot of pressure” on services.

At this stage, you probably have a good idea about why I actively chose not to seek medical attention – beyond the fact there’s not much you can do about a broken little toe: Because I had grave doubts that I would be seen … at least not within four hours.

I’ve spent my fair share of time in EDs, mostly due to my incurable clumsiness, and it’s fair to say a wait is always expected – but until now, I had never felt that it was completely useless attempting to seek medical attention.

If I had chest pain or severe illness, I would likely have called an ambulance and bypassed the ED waiting room entirely.

The last time I went to an ED – after being hit in the head by a horse resulted in a hole under my lip – I never made it past triage.

I was joined in the room by a child who had swallowed something they shouldn’t have, an elderly gentleman who had abdominal pain, a teenager with a broken arm, and a range of people who seemed relatively spritely and whose reason for being there I never managed to ascertain during my five-hour wait.

After that experience, I concluded that if a possible concussion and blood gushing out of my face wasn’t enough to get me in front of a doctor in order to get a stitch, I wouldn’t go to the ED for anything less.

However, not everyone makes the same [arguably questionable] call as I did, and – based on overheard conversations – there are many people who can’t afford to see a doctor and choose to go to the hospital instead.

The long wait times at many of our nation’s hospitals illustrate issues with the entire health system – the problem extends far further than a lack of beds on wards and medical staff.

Although people shouldn’t be making the call not to seek medical attention, with doctors booked up for weeks and massive wait times at the ED, I’d bet that it’s not just me resorting to self-care.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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