Satisfied hospital has served community well

Former Oamaru Hospital chief executive Robert Gonzales is happy to be taking a break from working...
Former Oamaru Hospital chief executive Robert Gonzales is happy to be taking a break from working life. Photo: Daniel Birchfield
For 17 years, Robert Gonzales was chief executive of Oamaru Hospital until he decided to step down in early May. After reflecting on his time with the Waitaki District Health Services owned and operated hospital, he sat down with Daniel Birchfield to talk about his time there.

It may sound cliched, but having the opportunity to make a difference in the community gave Robert Gonzales the most satisfaction during his tenure as chief executive of Oamaru Hospital.

Mr Gonzales relocated to Oamaru from Dunedin with his family in 2001 to take on the position, shortly after the hospital moved to its current site next to Takaro Park, from the site known affectionately as ‘Hospital Hill’, near where the Observatory Retirement Village now stands.

"Over the past 17 years Oamaru has been a fantastic place for us," Mr Gonzales, originally from the Philippines, said.

"The main pull, really, was family because my wife Mary is an Oamaru girl and I didn’t have family in New Zealand and when we started having a family and our own children, it was important to have some of her family around."

Before he arrived in New Zealand in 1989 and settled in Dunedin, Mr Gonzales, a qualified industrial engineer, worked in health administration — a field in which he has forged a successful career.

While at Dunedin Hospital he was the service leader of the hospital’s advanced medical imaging and radiation department.

In 2001 he decided the time was right to settle in Oamaru.  A major change was happening in the Oamaru health system.

Moving the hospital to its Stuart St site was backed by some and maligned by others, who felt it was not necessary.

While Mr Gonzales did not oversee the move, he was an integral part of the current hospital’s development.

The hospital, while funded by the Southern District Health Board, is owned and operated by Waitaki District Council-owned company Waitaki District Health Services.

That set it apart from other New Zealand hospitals, Mr Gonzales said.

"It is unique in New Zealand ... I think it’s a good model and I still maintain it’s a good model for health services in a rural community like Oamaru. I think community ownership is a proven model and from my point of view is a key to the success of the health service here. When the community owns the hospital, they do support the hospital 100%."

Oamaru Hospital. Photo: Hamish MacLean
Oamaru Hospital. Photo: Hamish MacLean
During his tenure he worked closely with the health board which he said was "challenging to say the least" at times, particularly when it came to funding negotiations.

In June 2015, the Health board proposed a 5%, or $500,000, cut in funding for the hospital, which threatened the future of the town’s emergency department, the number of beds available and other services.

As a result, an estimated 2400 people marched in protest from the Oamaru Farmers’ Market car park to Takaro Park where they were met by a further 100 supporters.

Another funding cut of 10% was proposed in the 2017-18 financial year and in March 2016, it was announced that bed numbers at the hospital would drop from 30 to 24 as funding was only available for 22.6 beds.

At the time, Mr Gonzales said funding for the hospital’s emergency department had been insufficient for a long period, despite significant increases in the number of patients being seen there.

He maintained his stance that the hospital’s emergency department was essential, no matter what form it took.

"I think there’s a need for a level of emergency service in any given town, whether that’s an emergency department or an emergency service of a different model. The key really is what does this population need in terms of an emergency service?

"I think our emergency service department has served us well over the years and I think it’s appropriate to review I suppose how that service is provided and how it can better serve the community."

On the issue of funding, he said no amount of money was too much to invest in health.

"I think health funding is never sufficient, anywhere you go. The needs are great and the reality is people are coming through the door and you have to respond to them and be able to resource that response to a level that is acceptable. You see the changes in inflation and the increase in costs and prices ... it all contributes to how health is to be provided, The need doesn’t change — in fact the need is increasing because we having a growing ageing population. I think our funding is never going to be enough. You need to look at the ways you can best respond to it within the resources that are available at any given time."

Asked what he considered to be some of the highlights during his tenure, Mr Gonzales said being able to "make a difference for the community" was the biggest.

Others included the installation of the hospital’s CT scanner that was installed in 2008 as part of a $1.8million upgrade of the radiology department and the subsequent increase in the number of scans performed after a deal was struck with the health board; the establishment of the Takaro Lodge aged care facility, which closed last year after the Observatory Retirement Village was opened in August, and the surgical bus service.

While his decision to leave was not easy, he felt it was the right time to step aside.

"I think in everything you do there’s always a time when you realise it’s come to an end. For me, the priority now is to take a bit of space and look after my own self and wellbeing, I guess. Seventeen years is a long period of time to be available to an organisation 24-7. It’s a highly pressured environment. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. One day you just wake up and realise that things need to be re-prioritised I guess."

For now he was content resting and dedicating more time to his family, with the occasional fishing trip thrown in.

daniel.birchfield@odt.co.nz 

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