More questions than answers

Dunedin Hospital rebuild representatives (from left) SDHB chief executive Chris Fleming, Southern...
Rebuild group members (from left), Chris Fleming, Andrew Blair, Richard Thomson, Michael Hundleby, and David Perez at Hutton Theatre last night. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
Dunedinites and the southern public are in something of a quandary.

On the one hand, people want to have confidence in the Government appointees tasked with running our district health board in the absence of publicly elected members, want to trust that those overseeing the rebuild of the city’s public hospital have the health wishes and requirements of Otago and Southland front and centre. Most do not want to spend their time worrying, whingeing or protesting; they simply want to be reassured that when they most need help for themselves or their loved ones, timely, reliable and quality healthcare will be available close at hand.

On the other hand, the more such reassurances are desired, and the less forthcoming the response from authorities, the more the frustration and anxiety builds.

There was public interest and expectation ahead of this week’s public meeting on the hospital rebuild, as there had been a dearth of public meetings since the board was sacked and a commissioner team appointed. The forum was the first time the public had been invited to hear specifically from those planning the rebuild.

Attendees were seeking details about fundamental aspects of the project, which has been beset by delays.  But critical aspects of the rebuild (cost, size, composition, status and location) are still unclear — or undisclosed.

Location is a major issue. Suggestions the new hospital could be built on the Wakari hospital site have unnerved many, as has the possibility of split sites. A central city site is deemed so essential the Dunedin City Council has resolved to lobby the Government for a commitment on that.

The size and configuration are also concerns. Without reassurances any new hospital will be a high-level tertiary one, uncertainty around the medical school and retention of services is rife. (Assurances were made at the forum that  neurosurgery and cardiac surgery services will  remain).

Issues of transparency are at the fore, too. The public does wonder what is not being disclosed, and information once routinely provided is now harder to access. It may well be there are very good commercial reasons why certain aspects cannot yet be revealed, but if that is the case, being upfront about that would be better than hollow words and meaningless meetings.

Mixed messages abound. SDHB chief executive Chris Fleming has talked about being "open". 

However, the reality is often different. When recent heavy rain caused significant leaks in two operating theatres, official acknowledgement of the incident came not when this newspaper  asked about the incident in the aftermath but days later — only when it was admitted in a parliamentary health select committee meeting.

Similarly, Southern Partnership Group chairman Andrew Blair has said  it is too soon in the  rebuild project to discuss "site-specific options", yet only this week

said there was no time to consult the public about the rebuild. He said the board had consulted the public extensively and knew what it wanted.

What is the public supposed to believe?

The timeframe is testing public patience, too. A business case for the rebuild has taken years and is not expected until  mid-2018. A rebuild date has not been specified, but the advice since 2015 has been "seven to 10" years.

There is undoubtedly a lot to work through and a lot to get right. Dunedinites would probably be more patient and understanding about progress and the process if they felt confident of the outcome. The commissioner team and partnership group have inherited problems stemming back years and are understandably unwilling to take responsibility for former delays, but they should remember the community has been involved for far longer.

The community remembers the uncertainty around neurosurgery and the Dunedin Courthouse. It had to fight to retain both. And this is election year. Could a big announcement be expected that will put smiles on southern voters’ faces (and possibly sway them at the ballot box), or could it be a post-election body blow?

Genuine open, informative communication is desired, therefore, to put minds at rest. For the moment there are more questions than answers and trust remains at a premium.


Pictured. Decision makers, unnerved by health reporter, look anywhere but in her direction.