The South needs fresh thinking for the next decade of Healthcare – Opinion Editorial – Joseph Mooney MP

News of fears that the Southland Hospital is on the verge of collapse reflects the angst created by a combination of this Labour Government’s historic incompetence with building hospitals big enough to service the region’s growing communities and, more recently, to adjust its immigration settings to ensure a health workforce sufficient enough to serve them adequately.

When I met health and cancer advocate Melissa Vining of Blair Vining’s Epic Journey, she outlined concerns with Southland Hospital operating under immense challenging conditions. This is despite doctors and nurses on the front line excellently trying to keep the fort while there are severe staff shortages.

Consequently, the paediatric assessment unit has been closed for three weeks, high-risk orthopaedic patients are being flown to Dunedin Hospital at the cost of $10,000 per flight, and cancer patients wait well over the Ministry of Health recommended timeframes for treatment.

The Southern part of New Zealand has long been at the back of the queue for its health services and strategic infrastructure planning. This is while the region has a history of punching above its weight in contributing to the country’s economy. Still, its healthcare needs have often come as a second thought to Government decision-makers.

The new healthcare reforms were promised as an opportunity to end the postcode lottery style of healthcare provision, which has badly let down the South in the past, and we need to ensure that this opportunity isn’t lost.

Dunedin has a Base Hospital, and it is clear that a new hospital there is needed, although incredibly, no soil has yet been turned on building it. In addition, it is reported that it could have 58 fewer beds and two fewer operating theatres than initially planned.   Specialists are already warning that Dunedin hospital will be too small for existing needs as the Government talks about reducing the build.

Medical professionals say this would be a disaster and a replay of what the Helen Clark-led Labour Government did in 2002 with the Invercargill Hospital when the then Health Minister Annette King deliberately underbuilt the hospital for the population size at the time. She relied on forecasts that Southland’s population would reduce by 3,500 people by 2015. Instead, Southland’s population grew by tens of thousands. Not only that, but Southland Hospital has to cater for much of Queenstown-Lakes population, which could peak at some 117,000 people on a given night pre-Covid.

Queenstown-Lakes has a well-deserved reputation as the Adventure Capital of the World. However, that status also means an endless stream of injuries from skiing, mountain biking and other adventure activities, all of which have to go to either Southland Hospital or Dunedin Hospital.

Southland Hospital, which is already straining with more people in Southland than it was built for, also caters for the population of Queenstown-Lakes and Central Otago. That often means that people who are wait-listed for surgery are bumped at the last moment for injuries from various sporting-related injuries.

Pre-approved plans for a new operating theatre and bigger emergency department at Southland Hospital have stalled and are under review by the Government’s newly merged Health NZ entity.

Queenstown-Lakes is already the second fastest-growing area in the country, and Central Otago is not far behind.  We should also not forget about the health needs of towns like Te Anau, Gore and Clyde.

Currently, flying to Auckland from Queenstown is faster than driving to Southland Hospital or Dunedin Hospital.

It is not fair to the residents of Dunedin and Southland hospitals to be displaced by trauma victims and others from Central Otago and Queenstown-Lakes being flown and driven 2-3 hours south to take beds meant to be allocated for them. Equally, it is not fair to the residents and visitors of Central Otago and Queenstown-Lakes to be flown or driven long distances across often icy or snow-covered roads for 2-3 hours to a hospital far from their homes and support networks.

With the return of international tourism, it is probably not long before we see a rise in the population of Queenstown-Lakes alone on any given night.

There needs to be a fit-for-purpose strategy for healthcare facilities and staffing required to service Central Otago Queenstown-Lakes healthcare needs, not a one-size fits all approach. 

Some courage in leadership and vision is needed to improve our healthcare services, and there is no better time than now to map out a triangular strategic vision for Dunedin, Southland and Central Otago Queenstown Lakes that will serve our region well for the coming 10-20 years.  Building never gets cheaper, and populations never get smaller.