Hospitals in the Wellington region are handing out vouchers for free GP after-hours and remote appointments to patients who don't need to be in under-pressure emergency departments.
Capital & Coast and Hutt Valley DHBs have delayed planned care for four weeks, on top of a two-week deferment, as they struggle with unprecedented staffing absences and winter illness-related demand.
The vouchers cover the cost of a visit to an after-hours clinic or a remote or virtual GP consultation.
"We are utilising vouchers so that patients who do not require emergency care can visit a GP or clinic in the community in order to ease pressure on our EDs," Hutt Valley DHB and Capital & Coast DHB chief medical officer John Tait said.
Wellington ED is giving out about 10 or more per day. The DHBs were not able to say how many vouchers had been given out in total.
The Wellington emergency department is seeing an average of 175 patients each day and Hutt Hospital is seeing an average of 138.
As pressure mounts, Wellington Hospital had been diverting more patients to Wellington Accident & Urgent Medical Centre in recent weeks, said Dr Kelvin Ward, who runs the centre and is chair of the Royal New Zealand College of Urgent Care.
"In the last couple of weeks it's been significantly more than it has been in previous months. It might be eight or 10 [patients] some days but then none other days. It varies somewhat," Dr Ward said.
An appointment at Wellington Accident & Urgent Medical Centre can cost an adult $108. Ward said after-hours clinics, including his, could help ease pressure from DHBs further if government funding made appointments more affordable and if clinics had more staff to increase capacity.
"That cost is obviously a barrier and likely one of the reasons why people do present to ED. Certainly it would be an aspirational goal to have funding available for patients to be seen in urgent care or community settings."
He has called for a nationalised funding system for after-hours care.
In Auckland, Counties-Manukau DHB is paying GP surgeries $350 per patient to offer free appointments, to help ease pressure on Middlemore's Emergency Department.
Despite Christchurch Hospital becoming overwhelmed, Canterbury DHB said vouchers were not being handed out at Christchurch Hospital ED.