• waiting list;
  • elective surgery;
  • prioritisation;
  • rationing;
  • New Zealand


Waiting lists for elective procedures are a characteristic feature of tax-funded universal health systems. New Zealand has gained a reputation for its ‘booking system’ for waiting list management, introduced in the early-1990s. The New Zealand system uses criteria to ‘score’ and then ‘book’ qualifying patients for surgery. This article aims to (i) describe key issues focused on by the media, (ii) identify local strategies and (iii) present evidence of variation. Newspaper sources were searched (2000–2006). A total of 1199 booking system stories were identified. Findings demonstrate, from a national system perspective, the extraordinarily difficult nature of maintaining overall control and coordination. Equity and national consistency are affected when hospitals respond to local pressure by reducing access to elective treatment. Findings suggest that central government probably needs to be closely involved in local-level management and policy adjustments; that through the study period, the New Zealand system appears to have been largely out of the control of government; and that governments elsewhere may need to be cautious when considering developing similar systems. Developing and implementing scoring and booking systems may always be a ‘messy reality’ with unintended consequences and throwing regional differences in service management and access into stark relief. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.