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Readers believe health money is distributed unfairly due to media coverage of funding decisions, new University of Otago research suggests.
The Otago Daily Times (ODT) was singled out, with academics saying the newspaper seemed to follow a policy line rather than report the views of healthcare groups.
Researchers Aaron Chester, Erin Penno and Robin Gauld examined how media covered issues arising from Population Based Funding Formula (PBFF) - a census-based calculation which attempts to distribute health funding equitably - over a 13-year period.
Media consistently linked PBFF to the cause and effects of financial pressure on district health boards, which showed the need for openness and transparency in setting budgets, the article, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal yesterday, said.
"With increasing healthcare costs combined with an ageing population, a growing prevalence of chronic illness and persistent disparities in healthcare access and outcomes, it will become increasingly important that Vote Health is distributed as fairly and as effectively as possible," it said.
"A greater understanding of the interplay between the PBFF and other factors which may contribute to DHB financial strife would be useful in furthering this goal and in optimising New Zealand’s healthcare system."
The authors used newspaper databases to track articles on PBFF and identify regular themes in newspaper coverage.
Coverage of PBFF issues was predominantly in the South Island, with the Otago Daily Times singled out by researchers for its strong focus on policy issues affecting the region.
"Typically presented in a negative light, the PBFF was most commonly framed against a background of financial struggle and resultant impacts on health services and staff," the article said.
"The geographic imbalance in reporting volume suggests that frustration with the PBFF is particularly keenly felt in the South Island."
The large volume of articles in the ODT suggested the idea the newspaper was acting as a policy contributor in the PBFF debate, the authors said Otago Daily Times editor Barry Stewart said the newspaper covered issues important to its readers.
"Health is one such issue, and we are proud to have identified and questioned decisions that impact on our people and the region.
"We will continue to hold decision-makers to account. That is our essential role."
The authors called for greater transparency in the PBFF model, and greater use of independent comment about the formula by the media.
"In light of ongoing financial disparities across district health boards, it reinforces the importance of monitoring of the impact of PBFF allocations across the country," the article said.
The PBFF is reviewed every five years by the Ministry of Health, most recently in 2015.