'Finally': Blair Vining's cancer doctor on health system shake-up

Blair Vining, who died of bowel cancer at the age of 39, worked tirelessly to help dramatically...
Blair Vining, who died of bowel cancer at the age of 39, worked tirelessly to help dramatically improve the health system. Photo: Layton Findlater
When New Zealand lost Invercargill cancer patient Blair Vining there was anger in the air.

The 39-year-old, with the support of his family, dedicated his last months on Earth to fighting for better cancer care across New Zealand.

His doctor and top oncologist Chris Jackson said this new health system would help save lives like Vining - who was told he was dying of bowel cancer and would have to wait eight weeks for an urgent appointment.

"We have been calling for this for years and finally it's here," Jackson told the Herald.This morning Health Minister Andrew Little unveiled the major changes that will see the country's 20 DHBs culled and replaced with a national health body due to come into effect July next year.

The major announcements are:

  • All DHBs will be replaced by one national health body, Health New Zealand to fund and run the health system
  • A new Māori health authority will be created, with power to commission health services
  • The Ministry of Health will become an advisory and policy agency only
  • A new public health agency will be created within the Ministry of Health

While Jackson, who is also the medical director for Cancer Society of New Zealand, said the announcement was welcomed widely across the cancer sector, he said "we should not underestimate the task".

"Having worked at a DHB that was amalgamated with its neighbour that's a very difficult logistic process and to amalgamate all of the DHBs into one unified everything is a bigger task than it sounds at first glance."

Top oncologist and medical director at Cancer Society of New Zealand Chris Jackson. Photo: Supplied
Top oncologist and medical director at Cancer Society of New Zealand Chris Jackson. Photo: Supplied
New Zealanders would not see changes immediately and it would take a long time to alter care on the ground but in the long term it would hopefully improve the system, he said.

It was a risk but New Zealand could not afford to keep the same system because cancer care has not been good enough, he said.

"It's an opportunity and one we must embrace."

Currently DHBs have a one-year budget, but Jackson said he hoped it would mean the health system could start thinking more long-term.

"If we can get some clarity around the funding pathways that will make it easy in the long run."

Jackson said when it came to accessing high complexity surgery it was impossible and it all varied around the country.

"This should change with the nationalised system."

Blair's story

The 38-year-old father-of-two was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in October 2018 and was initially given three months to live.

He was then told to wait eight weeks for an "urgent appointment" with an oncologist.

His wife Melissa refused to let her husband die waiting and called every person she could think of until she got hold of the medical director of New Zealand's Cancer Society and top oncologist Chris Jackson.

As a result, Blair was able to start chemotherapy right away and was put on the best treatment possible - giving him enough time to renew his wedding vows and savour the time he had left with his two teenage daughters.

But there was one itch the 38-year-old couldn't let go - a "broken health system".

"If I had waited that eight weeks, then I'd likely already be dead," Blair told the Herald back in January.

Instead of breaking down, Blair stood up to fight with his family and friends backing him every step of the way.

He launched New Zealand's biggest ever cancer petition, gaining 150,000 signatures, calling on the Government to set up a cancer agency to end "postcode lottery" care, which varied wildly across the country.

Blair lived to see his final wish come to fruition when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark announced the establishment of a national cancer agency on September 1.

Since his death, Melissa has work tirelessly to launch a charity hospital in Southland gathering support from Blair Vining's Epic Journey.

He is remembered by his family as "positive, never feeling sorry for himself and always thinking of others".

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