Our health is priceless

You do not have anything if you do not have your health.

At the peak of the health system sits the hospital.

A hospital is different from an office block. It is a community facility where important family milestones are passed. We are born there, our ailments and injuries are treated there, and some of us will die there.

It is a vital part of the day-to-day functioning of society, and critical infrastructure in times of distress and emergency.

That is why today the Otago Daily Times is launching a campaign calling on the Government to build the new hospital it promised the people of Otago and Southland.

On May 5, 2018, the site of the long-awaited new Dunedin hospital was confirmed.

Since that day, the ODT and the wider community have watched with apprehension as health officials, clinicians and administrators wrangled over the cost of the hospital and what services should be within it.




A detailed business case for the hospital had been signed off by Cabinet, but the space and services promised within were under siege before the ink dried. As inflation soared and construction costs spiralled, the assault on the project’s budget has only intensified.

Just before Christmas, it was revealed the project was to have its budget increased for a second time, but that planners had also been ordered to find $90million in savings.

Those "savings" included eliminating much of the non-clinical space — areas where doctors, nurses and allied health professionals would both work and meet with other practitioners, patients and families. Also being cut entirely or delayed were beds for vulnerable older patients, important diagnostic scanning tools, and operating theatres.

The cuts were made despite strenuous arguments from southern health leaders, who firmly believe cuts to the project now are a false economy — reinstating them later would be at considerably more expense, and the patients who would have used those spaces or services would still need to be treated somewhere.

Compromises have been made that already threaten to impede the efficient running of a modern hospital. As things stand, the considerably remodelled facility looks like the least worst option that clinicians could tolerate, rather than the state-of-the-art, forward-looking facility Otago and Southland was promised.

Savings have been made today, but it is the ill and infirm of tomorrow who will pay, now and in future.

Last month former Dunedin Hospital ear nose and throat department clinical director Martyn Fields said the previously agreed floor space and clinical services were "barely adequate" and warned a stripped-back version of the original plan would struggle to meet the needs of an ageing population and a growing number of urban and regional patients in the future.

Today John Adams, a former chairman of the clinical leadership group that has advised on the project from a medical perspective, says that the new hospital design is now so compromised it will undermine the work of its doctors and nurses. He further warns any more cutbacks will come to be seen as a significant blunder.

We are not indifferent to the fact that building a new hospital is expensive, and it is only becoming more expensive by the day. Its budget should be rigorously managed, as should all expenditure of public money.

Shaving excessive cost is one thing — slicing so deeply that clinicians believe they will not be able to do their job of caring for their community is quite another.

Beds and operating theatres are not abstract numbers on a spreadsheet: the people who will be treated in them are grandparents, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons.

The Dunedin City Council has recognised the threat the continual downgrading of the new hospital poses to our people and is about to launch its own campaign to ensure the new Dunedin hospital meets the community’s needs.

The ODT has always placed the DCC under rigorous scrutiny, and will continue to do so. But on this crucial issue for our regions and our community, we agree with the council.

Our campaign will run alongside council’s, as we make a united call for the Government to build the hospital it announced with much fanfare, rather than the watered-down hodgepodge of concessions and make-dos it threatens to be unless the community says no, no further.

The new hospital needs to meet the needs of Otago and Southland not just for this generation but for several to follow. It will be many decades before it will be replaced and so it needs to be fit for purpose, not just at its full opening in 2029 but for many years afterwards.

There will only be one chance to get this right, and the people of Dunedin, Otago and Southland — those living here now and those not yet born — deserve nothing less than it being done right.

Our health is priceless.