Public, private health divide decides brothers’ fate

Dunedin’s Stephen Hoffman is urging people to pick up the phone and push to receive prompt...
Dunedin’s Stephen Hoffman is urging people to pick up the phone and push to receive prompt treatment so their cancer does not become terminal like his did. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Two brothers were both diagnosed with prostate cancer, but only one had to rely on public healthcare — and only one is dying.

Dunedin resident Stephen Hoffman is a victim of the delays to cancer care in the Southern district detailed in a damning Health and Disability Commission report released earlier this month covering the years 2016-22.

His brother Mike, who was swiftly treated for prostate cancer through the private system, believed Stephen would likely have fully recovered if not for New Zealand’s "Third World" public health care.

Stephen (68) said time was the biggest factor in whether cancer was treatable and he wanted to stop anyone else ending up in his position.

His key advice was to be proactive and call as often as it took to be sure treatment plans were progressing, as he had twice been lost in the system.

"That’s what they do with people, they fob them off so that people have to go private — it’s a bit of a farce," he said.

His prostate issues were discovered by a GP in September 2016, but despite being classed as urgent, 10 months passed before he underwent surgery in July 2017.

His biopsy took place in April that year, and an MRI in May found almost his entire prostate replaced with tumour.

The cancer spread to his liver and lungs and he now has a tumour at the base of his brain.

Going private could have cost $40,000 and was not affordable for the former truck driver.

"I couldn’t afford that, and not many people can."

Furthermore, the point of a public healthcare system was that they should not have to.

Mike Hoffman (63) said the way his brother’s case was handled was especially galling given his family history should have made him a priority.

The Christchurch resident was diagnosed with prostate cancer on Christmas Eve 2010, just weeks after a blood test showed an issue.

Because of his medical insurance, he had private surgery less than three months later — including an unexpected month-long delay caused by the February 22 earthquake.

"They got to it so quickly it was all contained within my prostate, and so I’ve been 12 years without cancer."

His brother was older than he was when he was diagnosed, a factor usually in the patient’s favour, and he believed his condition would have been fully treatable if it had only been dealt with in time.

"I cannot believe I can be treated the way I was in private, and he can be treated the way he was in public, yet we’re led to believe we have a good first-world health system in New Zealand — it seems more Third World to me."

A Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand (HNZ) spokeswoman said the organisation apologised to those who experienced distress and delays in their cancer treatment.

"We encourage any patient to please contact their treating team to discuss any concerns or questions."

HNZ accepted the Health and Disability Commission report’s decisions and was implementing recommendations.

"Our staff are doing the best with the resources available to them, but we recognise the need for more staff, and for us to work in different ways to reduce waiting times for cancer services — we are doing that with the health reforms."