An introduction to the New Zealand healthcare system

10 December 2019

Thinking of heading to New Zealand? You’re not alone if you’re looking forward to the stunning landscapes and friendly, relaxed Kiwi culture. To make the most of your time there, it helps to understand things like how the healthcare system works, so you’ll know how to get help if you need it.

The healthcare system in New Zealand is made up of a mixture of public and private care. The public healthcare system offers heavily subsidised care, for anyone who is eligible. It’s often admired for its efficiency, but due to rapid population growth, it’s now got more people to deal with than ever before¹. This has led to longer waiting times and more pressure on the public services, increasing the uptake of private health insurance. Today, signing up for both  public and private healthcare systems, and using them to complement each other is very popular, with over 30% of adult residents in New Zealand taking out private medical insurance. 

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Healthcare in New Zealand for non-residents

For expats, it’s not so easy to register for the public system, as you’ll usually need a residency permit (you’re only eligible for this after living there for at least two years). Even residents have to go through a relatively strict health assessment, and can be refused access altogether due to their current health or certain pre-existing conditions. You can find out more about the criteria here. Despite the tight controls on who receives subsidised care, you can still use the public health services – you’ll just need to cover the cost, either by yourself or with insurance. There are exceptions to this rule, if you’re from either the UK or Australia, as New Zealand shares Reciprocal Health Agreements with these countries. This means you could receive certain publicly-funded treatments or services, up to the same level as a New Zealand national.

Cost of public healthcare for non-residents

If you need to use the public health system, but you’re not eligible for subsidised care, you might wonder how much you’d need to pay. Like in many other countries, visiting your main doctor is the first thing to do when you’ve got a medical problem. This can cost around NZ$50, but as doctors’ surgeries are private businesses, the price can vary depending on where you go. A bit further up the scale is the cost of ambulance transport, in a medical emergency. Eligible residents will pay NZ$98 as a part-charge for St John ambulance transport. There’s a significant increase to NZ$800 for those who are not eligible for publicly funded services². This is a lot of money to pay, before you’ve even received your hospital bill.

Emergency services in New Zealand  

If you need the police, a fire engine or an ambulance, 111 is the number to call. The operators on the phone will then connect you to the right service. For the hearing or speech impaired, a 111 text service is also available to sign up to. St John provides ambulance services for most of the country, charging either a full or subsidised rate for medical emergencies (depending on whether you’re eligible for public care). Accidents are not usually charged for, if they’re covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). This is a country-wide scheme that provides accident insurance, and will compensate for the cost of treatment, and often for lost earnings if you’re unable to work. You will usually pay something towards the cost of your accident, even if your claim is eligible. But this scheme means that ambulance transport is much more affordable in an accident, than in a medical emergency, for example.

Seeing a specialist 

If you need to see a specialist in New Zealand, you’ll usually need to see your main doctor first. They’ll then refer you to the specialist you need. All specialists must be registered with the Medical Council, which lists information about the doctor, including their qualifications. Sometimes you can contact the specialist directly, if you need to see a podiatrist or physiotherapist for example, or if you have insurance. The same goes for choosing which specialist you’d like to see. Once you’ve been referred, you may have to wait up to 4 months for a consultation, and an average of 10 months for surgery, through the public system. This is one of the main reasons many New Zealand residents look for private health insurance to complement their public cover³.

Getting prescriptions

The government also subsidises the cost of some prescribed medicines, on the same basis as other forms of healthcare. The full price varies depending on the type of medicine you need and the pharmacy which you collect it from. Most pharmacies offer a range of medicines, with some having more choice than others. They’ll only accept prescriptions from New Zealand doctors, so if you bring a prescription from your home country, this will need to be reviewed.

New Zealand dental care

If you’re over 18 years of age, you’ll need to pay to see the dentist in New Zealand. As adult dental care is offered privately, prices vary, and are often higher within city centres. You can expect to pay between NZ$94 and NZ$140 for a check-up, scale and polish⁴, with some dentists charging more. You may be able to apply for government help, if you require certain treatments and have already funded a lot of your own dental care. Basic treatment is often free or heavily subsidised for eligible children, up to the age of 18 – often provided at school (or at a dental surgery). To avoid paying the full price for adult dental treatment, expats and tourists visiting New Zealand often choose to take out private medical insurance to cover dental treatment.

Sources 

¹ https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/new-zealand-population/
² https://www.stjohn.org.nz/What-we-do/St-John-Ambulance-Services/Part-Charges/
³ https://www.internations.org/go/moving-to-new-zealand/healthcare
https://www.enz.org/dental-costs-in-new-zealand.html