Stop short-sighted hospital stupidity

Blinkered thinking over funding the new Dunedin hospital complex must stop.

This project is falling deeper and deeper into the same trap as our health services have been in for decades, and we all know how well that has turned out. Obsession with reining in the cost now makes planners blind to the long-term risks and consequences of such thinking.

Last week, yet another blow to the project became public. The shelving of the proposed interprofessional learning centre (ILC), previously touted as an integral part of the health precinct, is just plain silly. This centre was to be an innovative and collaborative space for teaching and professional development. It would have included clinical education space, skills training and simulation facilities for staff and students, promoting ongoing integration of education, research and health provision.

This latest folly comes when there is an increasing realisation we need to both grow our own health professionals and retain them if our health system is to be worthy of a First World country and not constantly in turmoil over short staffing.

Dunedin, as the home of one of the country’s two medical schools, a dental school and a place where nurses and other health professionals are trained, must be able to offer this facility if it is to be taken seriously as a modern training centre, attractive to both students and those who teach them. Former dean of the University of Otago Dunedin School of Medicine Dr John Adams, who was closely involved with the early stages of planning for the hospital project, hit the nail on the head when he called the scrapping of plans for the centre "appallingly short-sighted".

Last year, chairman of the new hospital’s local advisory group Pete Hodgson said the centre would be built before the main inpatients building. "The inpatients building simply cannot open without a functional professional development unit for clinicians; it would be unsafe."

New Dunedin hospital site. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
New Dunedin hospital site. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Mr Hodgson said last week there would need to be something else. What, we wonder — finding a few broom cupboards somewhere in the plans which could be repurposed?

It is not clear to us how this centre can be relegated from being essential to a sort of "nice to have" at some unspecified time if two of the financially challenged funders of it, the University of Otago and Te Pukenga, suddenly find some cash down the back of the sofa. The cost of the building was listed as $51 million in 2021. This had more than doubled by August last year, and now stands at more than $130 million. Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand (HNZ) still has $17 million set aside for it.

It is time to stop the smoke and mirrors nonsense about the funding of this. The three organisations involved in sharing the cost — HNZ, the university and the polytechnic — all receive funding from central government. We cannot understand why the Government does not recognise the importance of this and stump up all the funding directly for the ILC.

As we have pointed out over the earlier dubious cost-cutting on the hospital project, delaying spending to some vague future time is false economy. The cost of building never goes down.

It has been disappointing to see Health Minister Ayesha Verrall downplay the importance of the shelving of the ILC by saying it will not affect healthcare provision for the people of Dunedin. Strictly speaking, that might be the case at this minute, but we expect her and her colleagues to be thinking about what will be best for the future of healthcare services here and in the rest of the country.

The National Party still seems luke-warm on the cost-cutting issues dogging the new hospital complex, not giving prospective voters any certainty funding would be assured under a National-led government. It is perplexing in an election year.

Our local Labour members of Parliament, who have previously expressed their support for the ILC, need to convince their leaders this must be sensibly resolved, and quickly.