Ambulance vehicles of St John New Zealand at their Pitt Street, Auckland base
This article needs to be updated. The reason given is: Needs to be updated to reflect recent changes to the healthcare system (Introduction of Health NZ and the Māori Health Authority). Please help update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information. (November 2022)

The healthcare system of New Zealand has undergone significant changes throughout the past several decades. From an essentially fully public system based on the Social Security Act 1938, reforms have introduced market and health insurance elements primarily since the 1980s, creating a mixed public-private system for delivering healthcare.[1][2]

In 2012, New Zealand spent 8.7% of GDP on healthcare, or US$3,929 per capita. Of that, approximately 77% was government expenditure.[7] In a 2010 study, New Zealand was shown to have the lowest level of medication use in 14 developed countries (i.e. used least medicines overall), and also spent the lowest amount on healthcare amongst the same list of countries, with US$2510 ($3460) per capita, compared to the United States at US$7290.[8][9]

History of healthcare

Until well after European contact Māori used natural medicines and spiritual healing. Among the European settlers, professional medical care was expensive and most people diagnosed themselves or sought alternative treatment.[10] In the mid 19th century New Zealand's first public hospitals were created by Governor George Grey and were available for those who could not afford a private doctor.[11][12]

The Public Health Act 1872 introduced local authority health boards. These were funded primarily by the local ratepayers and subsidised by the national government. There was still a large reliance on private charity to make up any shortfall. From 1909 poorer districts were given disproportionately more funding from the national government.[11] In 1938, the Social Security Act from the First Labour Government attempted to provide government funded healthcare to all. A free health system, with hospital and other health services universally available to all New Zealanders was the vision behind the Social Security Act 1938. This was never fully realised due to ongoing disputes between the medical profession and the Government. Health services evolved as a dual system of public and private health care subsidised through a series of arrangements known as the General Medical Service (GMS) benefits established in 1941. This remained largely unchanged until the late 1970s. From 1984 to 1993 the Labour then National governments introduced major changes designed to get area health boards (later Crown health enterprises) to imitate market forces.[11][13] User charges were introduced for prescriptions in February 1985 but broader controversial policies introduced by the Fourth National Government between 1991 and 1993 effectively ended largely free provision of primary healthcare, such services being targeted on the basis of income while Community Service Cards (introduced on 1 February 1992) provided additional support.[14][15][16] Public hospital charges of $50 for overnight stays were briefly implemented but was later abandoned as the 1993 election approached.[17]

New Zealand has had numerous public health campaigns and initiatives.[18] Children were given free milk between 1937 and 1967 but these were abolished due to budgetary constraints,[19] fluoride is added most drinking water in the country and there have been many anti-drinking (from the 1870s) and anti-smoking campaigns (from the 1960s).[20][21]

Restructuring of the healthcare system

On 21 April 2021, Health Minister Andrew Little announces radical plan to centralise healthcare, will abolish all 20 District Health Boards and create a single health organisation called Health New Zealand, in a sweeping plan to centralise New Zealand's fragmented healthcare system and end what has been characterised as a "postcode lottery" of care. Health New Zealand will be modelled after the United Kingdom's National Health Service. The Ministry of Health will also create a Māori Health Authority with spending power, and a new Public Health Authority to centralise public health work.[22][23]

In October 2021, the Sixth Labour Government introduced the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill to replace the country's district health boards with the new Health NZ. The legislation also formally establishes the Māori Health Authority and a new public health agency. The Ministry of Health will also play a stewardship role within the reformed health system.[24] The bill passed its third reading on 7 June 2022.[25]

In November 2023 research showed that children with serious trauma were twice as likely to die in hospital compared to Victoria, Australia.[26]


At present, the Ministry of Health is responsible for the oversight and funding of the twenty district health boards (DHBs). These are responsible for organising healthcare in the district and meeting the standards set by the Ministry of Health. Twenty-one DHBs came into being on 1 January 2001 with Southland and Otago DHBs merging into Southern DHB on 1 May 2010.

The boards for each district health board are elected in elections held every three years, with the exception of one of the eight board members, who is appointed by the Ministry of Health.

The DHBs oversee the forty-six primary health organisations established throughout the country. These were first set up in July 2002, with a mandate to focus on the health of communities. Originally there were 81 of these, but this has been reduced down to 46 in 2008. They are funded by DHBs, and are required to be entirely non-profit, democratic bodies that are responsive to their communities' needs. Almost all New Zealanders are enrolled in a PHO, as there are financial incentives for the patients to become enrolled.

The Northern Region DHBs also use shared services provided by the Northern DHB Support Agency and HealthAlliance. These services deliver region-wide health initiatives and shared IT services and logistics.

In Christchurch, the Canterbury District Health Board has been successful in redesigning services to reduce hospital use. Some of this transformation was precipitated by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes when several healthcare buildings were damaged or destroyed, and also 2019 mosque massacre as the several healthcare also response to the terrorist attacks. It now has lower rates of acute medical admissions, low average lengths of stay, fewer readmissions in acute care, fewer cancelled planned admissions and more conditions treated out of hospital.[27]

Public vs. private payment

Healthcare spending vs life expectancy for some countries in 2007

Hospital and specialist care in New Zealand is totally covered by the government if the patient is referred by a general or family practitioner and this is funded from government expenditure (approx. 77%).[7] Private payment by individuals also plays an important role in the overall system although the cost of these payments are comparatively minor. Those earning less than certain amounts, depending on the number of dependents in their household, can qualify for a Community Services Card (CSC). This reduces the cost of after-hours doctors' visits, and prescription fees, as well as the cost of visits to a person's regular doctor.

Injuries which occur as a result of "accidents", ranging from minor to major physical but including psychological trauma from sexual abuse are generally covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). This may include coverage for doctors visits and lump-sum payments.

Waiting lists

In New Zealand's public health system it is typical for medical appointments, particularly surgeries to have a waiting list. District Health Boards are typical judged in the media and by government in part based on the length of these lists. In 2016, it was inferred that many people required surgery but were not put on the official list.[28] Research projected that of all the people who had been told they needed surgery less than half were on the official list. However, the main concern noted by health industry observers was the overall increase in waiting time, about 304 days.[29]


In 2018 the Northern Region district health boards, Northland, Waitemata, Auckland and Counties Manukau developed a telehealth system with a unified video, audio, content sharing and chat platform provided by Zoom Video Communications which is intended to lead to a more integrated health system in the Northern Region. This should enable real-time consultations between clinicians in hospital, primary care and the community, and between patients and their care providers.[30]

Healthcare organisations

The list of well-known Healthcare organisations in New Zealand are:[31] – Geneva Healthcare – Counties Manukau Homecare Trust – Healthcare of New Zealand Holdings Ltd – Healthvision – Life Plus Ltd – Healthcare NZ – Royal District Nursing Service New Zealand


Main article: Abortion in New Zealand

Abortion is legal upon request in New Zealand.[32] According to figures released by Statistics New Zealand, the number of abortions rose from 8.5 per 1,000 women aged 15‒44 years in 1980 to 14 per 1,000 women in 1990. By 2000, this figure had risen to 18.7 per 1,000 women aged 15‒44 years but has since declined to 13.5 per 1,000 women as of 2018.[33]


The Pharmaceutical Management Agency of New Zealand (PHARMAC) was set up in 1993 to decide which medications the government will subsidise. In general, PHARMAC will select an effective and safe medication from a class of drugs, and negotiate with the drug manufacturer to obtain the best price. There are approximately 2,000 drugs listed on the national schedule that are either fully or partially subsidised.

In a sample of 13 developed countries New Zealand was thirteenth in its population weighted usage of medication in 14 classes in 2009 and also in 2013. The drugs studied were selected on the basis that the conditions treated had high incidence, prevalence and/or mortality, caused significant long-term morbidity and incurred high levels of expenditure and significant developments in prevention or treatment had been made in the last 10 years. The study noted considerable difficulties in cross border comparison of medication use.[34]

Sildenafil was reclassified in New Zealand in 2014 so it could be bought over the counter from a pharmacist. It is thought that this reduced sales over the Internet and was safer as men could be referred for medical advice if appropriate.[35]

Emergency service

Main article: Emergency medical services in New Zealand

Most emergency and non-urgent ambulance transportation is carried out by the charitable organisation St John New Zealand. In Wairarapa and the Wellington Region ambulance services are provided by the Wellington Free Ambulance organisation.[36]


An investigation into the death of a patient in the emergency department at Middlemore Hospital on 15 June 2022 concluded that the department was unsafe for both patients and its staff. On that night it was at least 30% over-capacity - but this was “…not an isolated day.” Nor was it unusual. The report said "As emergency departments continue to struggle with ever-increasing presentation numbers, delays in admitting patients to wards and significant ED overcrowding, announcements in ED waiting rooms regarding delays in assessment/treatment occur at an increasing frequency throughout EDs in Aotearoa New Zealand." Margie Apa of Te Whatu Ora accepted the conclusions of the report.[37]

See also


  1. ^ Beeby, Rosslyn (11 May 2020). "Covid-19 crisis shows flawed NZ health system 'not fit for purpose'". Research Professional News. Retrieved 4 November 2023.
  2. ^ "New Zealand's healthcare crisis". World Socialist Web Site. 15 January 2016. Retrieved 4 November 2023.
  3. ^ "ACC Payout for Illegal Overstayer | Scoop News".
  4. ^ "OECD iLibrary: Statistics / Health at a Glance / 2011 / Waiting time of four months or more for elective surgery". Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Retrieved 27 December 2012.
  5. ^ Hudson, Alice (14 October 2007). "Health cover under the knife". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2 October 2011.
  6. ^ Buchan, Professor James (July 2018). "Policy Brief: Nurse Retention" (PDF). International Centre on Nurse Migration. p. 5. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  7. ^ a b "WHO Statistical Information System". World Health Organization. Retrieved 23 September 2008.
  8. ^ Johnston, Martin (30 July 2010). "NZ ranks last in medicine use and lowest health spender". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
  9. ^ "New Zealand's public healthcare crisis worsens". 10 January 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2023.
  10. ^ "Primary health care – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  11. ^ a b c "New Zealand Health System Reforms". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  12. ^ "1. – Hospitals – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  13. ^ "5. – Primary health care – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  14. ^ Community Service Cards Authored by Steve Maharey, former Minister of Social Development
  15. ^ [1] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 19 September 1985, pg 6,971
  16. ^ Healthcare
  17. ^ "Linda Bryder, 'Hospitals – Hospital funding and patient entitlement', Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  18. ^ McLintock, Alexander Hare; Francis Sydney Maclean M. B., B. Chir. "Public Health". An encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, 1966. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  19. ^ "End of free school milk". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  20. ^ "4. – Public health – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  21. ^ "The history of tobacco in New Zealand". Cancer Society NZ. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  22. ^ Manch, Thomas; Witton, Bridie (21 April 2021). "Government announces radical plan to centralise healthcare, will abolish DHBs". Stuff. Archived from the original on 20 April 2021. Retrieved 16 November 2021.
  23. ^ Quinn, Rowan (21 April 2021). "Major health sector shake-up: DHBs scrapped and new Māori Health Authority announced". Radio New Zealand. Archived from the original on 21 April 2021. Retrieved 16 November 2021.
  24. ^ "Hopes and doubts as health system overhaul kicks in". 1News. 1News. 30 June 2022. Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  25. ^ "New Health System Act passes third reading in Parliament". 1 News. TVNZ. 8 June 2022. Archived from the original on 7 June 2022. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  26. ^ "Shocking rate of trauma deaths among NZ kids revealed". 1 News. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  27. ^ "International examples of prudent approaches to healthcare". Public health Wales. Prudent Healthcare. Retrieved 11 July 2015.
  28. ^ "Who is missing out on surgery? Government releases first figures of 'phantom waiting list'". 6 March 2016.
  29. ^ "Thousands missing out on surgery, funding boost fails to make dent in 'phantom waitlists'". 10 April 2016.
  30. ^ "Northern district health boards in New Zealand implement new cloud-based telehealth service". Healthcare IT News. 13 November 2018. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  31. ^ "Auckland Health Providers List". Home and Community Health Association.
  32. ^ "New Zealand passes law decriminalising abortion". BBC News. 18 March 2020. Retrieved 24 March 2020.
  33. ^ "Abortions". Statistics New Zealand. Archived from the original on 5 August 2019. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
  34. ^ "International Comparison of Medicines Usage: Quantitative Analysis" (PDF). Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 October 2017. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
  35. ^ "Viagra from the pharmacist: insight from reclassification in New Zealand". Pharmaceutical Journal. 31 January 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  36. ^ "Ambulance services". St John. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  37. ^ "Middlemore patient death: Hospital slammed over woman's death in damning report". NZ Herald. 17 October 2022. Retrieved 9 November 2022.