Little joy for folk anxious about future of hospital

Oamaru Hospital. Photo: ODT files
Oamaru Hospital. Photo: ODT files
Dr Susan Scott gives her take on last month’s meeting, called by Waitaki District Health Services, to discuss  Oamaru Hospital and its services.

It was an uncomfortable night. The rain, the flooding, the cold auditorium, the mumbling into the microphone and the increasingly evasive responses from the hospital CEO and board members all contributed to a feeling of unease for the estimated 180 people in attendance.

It was a good turnout from the community on such a wet night but only three members of the board were in attendance, including the secretary who was taking notes. Unfortunately, Chris Swann and Chris Fleming weren’t there to answer questions.

It began with an introduction from those on stage, whose numbers were boosted by the presence of  Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean and Dr Pragati Gautama, who was rushed in to fill this role on her first day on the job as clinical director. Hospital CEO Ruth Kibble and board member Helen Algar quickly and frequently used the words sustainable and efficiencies but insisted that despite this there would not be any reduction in services. The kitchen closure (not a reduction but a change in service apparently) was the trigger for this meeting and was the subject of many of the questions put to the board. The hospital’s dietitian was one of the questioners and she pointed out that meals provided to hospital patients must continue to be monitored by a dietitian and meet the needs of all patients. The fact that she had to have this discussion with the board at a public meeting shows how ill-considered their already agreed memorandum of understanding is with their proposed new provider. The low point of the evening was when the CEO gave an incomplete answer when asked the reason for the sudden resignation of the previous clinical director, Dr Fazal Mann. The most interesting question for the board came from Dr Brian Robinson regarding the repayment of the $5 million loan to The Observatory Village by WDHS Trust. I think he is yet to receive an answer.

At the end of the meeting the future of the hospital’s food service was still surrounded in confusion as the CEO insisted that no contract had been signed yet. What is clear is that this is just the first of more "efficiencies" with the aim of eliminating the $800,000 annual deficit in the next 12-18 months. The details on how the CEO plans to achieve this included her suggestion to have patients "sit in La-Z-Boys for their infusions", which caused some consternation for members of staff present. It doesn’t matter whether a patient is lying in a bed or sitting in a chair, the correct procedures must always be followed to ensure patient safety and this requires adequate staffing. Those of us who have worked at the hospital know that it has been chronically understaffed for years and nursing and medical staff have worked hard to provide the best possible service in increasingly demanding conditions. 

The resignations of a number of highly experienced staff over the past 12 months or so should indicate to all, including the board, just how dangerous these conditions have become. Ruth Kibble has since admitted in the media that doctors having to work 60 hour shifts at Oamaru Hospital is unacceptable. Her acknowledgement of this longstanding issue is a step in the right direction but action is needed now to change the roster, especially on the weekends. This will involve employing more locum doctors in the short term as recruitment of permanent staff will take time.

So not much comfort to be taken from this meeting by a community anxious about the future of its hospital, which is soon to be rebranded as a health hub, whatever that means. Time, and the Southern District Health Board, will tell.

- Dr Susan Scott  worked in the emergency department at Oamaru Hospital for more than 12 years. She resigned in February this year.

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