Transparency an issue for health

Chair of Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand Rob Campbell. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Chair of Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand Rob Campbell. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Occupational therapists are an important part of the health system.

If someone succumbs to a serious illness or injury or has a disability which limits their ability to carry out everyday activities, the OT is a crucial member of a multi-disciplinary team which comes together to help that unfortunate person live their best life.

Te Whatu Ora-Health New Zealand chairman Rob Campbell should know something about occupational therapy — about half of New Zealand’s 2500 or so OTs work for the newly unified health system.

Which makes his statement yesterday that getting on with HNZ’s work "is more important to us than providing occupational therapy for journalists" all the more outrageous.

Leaving aside the extraordinarily jaundiced view of journalists and their work that that tart aside reveals, it also betrays a lack of understanding about the work those fine health professionals carry out with dedication every day.

Mr Campbell was being quizzed about just how transparent HNZ is, and it was an entirely legitimate line of inquiry for the media to pursue.

Back when the district health board system was in place, each of the 20 local boards released extensive agendas and reports for public consumption, before meeting in public to discuss their contents.

Those documents were a mine of information — and not just for journalists, but for the public at large — about what services had extraordinarily long wait lists, whether cancer scans and treatments were being delivered in a timely manner, whether emergency departments could cope with the number of patients presenting, if there were enough doctors or nurses on the wards, and a myriad other topics.

It is the public’s health system, the DHBs were created so that the public could both be better informed about how that system was performing, have a place to raise their concerns if it was performing poorly, and on which they could make their voice heard should they be elected to one.

It was an at times clumsy system, and it is inarguable that it could create inefficiencies, one of the reasons why Health NZ has now come to be. But it was public, it was open, it was accountable.

Mr Campbell and his merry band of mandarins and bureaucrats, on the other hand, do not meet in public and are only open to a certain degree, which leaves questions over their accountability.

Mr Campbell made an entirely valid point when he said that much of the early business of HNZ has been hiring staff and signing contracts, the sort of financial horse trading which should not be carried out in public.

But, unlike the DHBs, HNZ is only releasing bullet points of agenda issues it will discuss at a board level, rather than detailed reports from well-informed staff.

This matters because issues of vital importance to local communities will be being discussed, but "infrastructure and investment portfolio update" and "updates from Te Whatu Ora board committees" do not tell people from Rawene, Ruatoria or Riverton if something that they should know about was debated.

It has given a media briefing after each board meeting, but journalists attending begin from a position of ignorance, not knowing the full details of what was discussed.

It has also said it will release the minutes of its meetings, but only a month afterwards, by which time the interest in something of what was of immediate public concern may well have dissipated. HNZ may argue that a granular level of detail will be discussed at a locality network level, but at this point in time health localities only exist as prototypes and only in a few locations, and quite how they will function remains somewhat of a mystery.

HNZ may also argue, as Mr Campbell did, that the organisation answers all questions from journalists around the country.

But many of those, even questions asking for statistics which were routinely reported in monthly DHB agendas, are now being treated as Official Information Act requests.

Previously routine questions about local daily events now have to be referred to Wellington for an answer, a process which can take days and result in a local voice not being in an article.

Journalists, and by extension the public, have been left harmed by this new health system in terms of access to local health information.

What is needed is a genuine commitment to openness, not a glib one-liner.