Westport struggling to staff 'dysfunctional' medical centre

Te Rau Kawakawa health centre has only been open nine months. Photo: Supplied
Te Rau Kawakawa health centre in Westport. Photo: Supplied
A doctor who has worked at 90 health centres around New Zealand, says Westport's is the most dysfunctional.

Te Rau Kawakawa, which opened only last year to replace the old Buller Hospital, has closed four times in nine months due to staff shortages, prompting the Buller District Council to write directly to Health Minister Dr Shane Reti.

Some councillors claimed at their meeting this week that the minister's response was "glib".

Cr Graeme Neylon said the response seemed to be "toeing the party line".

"We have doctors who want to come but they don't like working here. That's putting it bluntly. I talked to a doctor born in Westport and returned to Westport on many occasions as a locum.

"He worked in 90 different centres around New Zealand and without doubt Westport was the most dysfunctional medical centre he had worked in. Those are the sorts of things that are putting doctors off coming to Reefton," Cr Neylon said.

For the past 25 years, he had talked to every doctor leaving Reefton, with an exit-type interview so that they could make the role better and more inviting.

He said problems were the fault of health management.

"Nothing ever gets done" about the problem.

Cr Neylon said currently, one doctor who could work anywhere at a higher rate, kept returning to Reefton, yet they read from the minister there was a worldwide shortage.

"But he likes Reefton. These are the sort of things that need to happen if we are going to attract health professionals to Reefton.

"It's really, really concerning with the previous minister of health under Labour said it's a well known fact in the health sector, there are a whole heap of bullies. Bullies remain, those being bullied are pushed out."

Cr Neylon said they needed to ask top tier management to step up and ask the minister to deal with it.

He also cautioned that in some cases, West Coast health management formulated an answer for the minister to sign.

"I don't disagree," Mayor Cleine said.

The council will now write back to the minister with examples of known issues.

After concerns about the most recent Westport health centre closure, Dr Reti said the health force was under pressure, and this was not unique to the West Coast.

It had been exacerbated in Westport by unexpected leave there, and in Greymouth.

Health NZ chief medical officer Dr Brendan Marshall said the West Coast had led New Zealand in developing training pathways for rural health professionals.

"Westport and indeed the entire West Coast suffers the same issues that remote regions of Canada, Australia, northern Europe and the USA all experience retaining a health workforce.

"It is very often the offerings of jobs for partners and schools for children that see health professionals move away."

Dr Marshall said Health NZ efforts to support rural communities was part of why the Coast had been chosen as a 'locality' pilot.

"A key plank of this frame is to work with local groups such as iwi and councils to look at ways that areas like the West Coast can become attractive for families of health professionals to move and stay and thus retain its experienced workforce."