Ronald McDonald House

News a Ronald McDonald House is planned for Dunedin will have been welcomed by many, but it may not have attracted universal acclaim.

When it was revealed in 2017 the charity was keen to see a Ronald McDonald House (RMH) as part of the Dunedin Hospital rebuild, there were both vocal supporters and detractors.

On one side were those families who had found the houses elsewhere in the country a godsend. They were baffled by any criticism of the facilities they had regarded as a home away from home when their children were receiving long-stay hospital treatment.

The houses provided a much-needed haven and support for families whose lives had been turned upside down by a child’s illness. Those wanting a RMH within the new Dunedin hospital precinct organised a petition supporting it which attracted 12,000 signatures.

On the other side were public health advocates who recognised the need for the sort of accommodation provided by RMHs but worried there would be a spin-off "health halo" for McDonald’s. This occurring when childhood obesity is running rampant and there is increasing concern about the proliferation of fast-food outlets and the influence of children’s exposure to fast food marketing.

One of the issues they raised was the perception, given the branding of the houses with the fast food giant’s mascot, that McDonald’s fronted up with most if not all of the cost of the facilities, when that was not the case.

It is difficult to tell, from the way McDonald’s portrays its involvement, what proportion of the more than $1.5 million it gives to the charity annually is provided from company profits and what is contributed by donations collected by franchisees. The total the Ronald McDonald House Charities New Zealand Trust received from fund-raising and donors in the year to the end of last December, once expenses were deducted, was $6,262,007.

In the end the 2017 idea of an RMH in the new hospital campus went nowhere, with the Southern District Health Board arguing the connection to the world’s biggest fast-food giant was contrary to its public health function.

Those who had used RMHs said McDonald’s products were not promoted or served there, so why the fuss about the use of the mascot’s name? However, it would be naive not to recognise that big corporate players whose names are at the forefront of their good works/sponsorships are hoping their largesse will result in extra custom, as much as they might want to deny it. Think of the behaviour of Big Tobacco and Big Booze and the soft drink giants.

Artist’s impression of the planned Ronald McDonald House. IMAGE: SUPPLIED
Artist’s impression of the planned Ronald McDonald House. IMAGE: SUPPLIED
It seems any establishment of an RMH in Dunedin is still some way off. It will be the end of the year before the charity takes possession of the former Cook Brothers Construction premises in Anzac Ave and it is not clear whether the proposal will involve a new build or a refurbishment.

In the meantime, is there a need for a comprehensive examination of the expected demand for facilities to serve all out-of-town Dunedin Hospital patients and support people, not just those of families with children receiving treatment or cancer patients (currently catered for in the Cancer Society’s Daffodil House). If a variety of accommodation is required, what is the best way to do that?

In conjunction with this, we are still waiting for the outcome of the long overdue review of the National Travel Assistance scheme, designed to provide some financial assistance towards travel and accommodation costs to those with the greatest need. Both the accommodation subsidy and the travel help are woefully out of step with real costs.

Ronald McDonald chief executive Wayne Howett has already said the accommodation funding shortfall amounts to millions of dollars with the organisation facing the bleak prospect of having to choose which families to support.

A continued piecemeal approach to this whole issue is inefficient and will only exacerbate the postcode lottery concerns around health services rather than help erase them.