Monday, December 31, 2007

Editorial: Facing failure in cancer wards

The Dominion Post | Wednesday, 31 October 2007

There can be few things more devastating for parents than being told their child has cancer, The Dominion Post writes.

The anguish and stress are unimaginable. That is why it is unacceptable to add to the almost unbearable burden that children diagnosed with cancer and their parents face. That is why Capital and Coast District Health Board must do whatever is necessary to stop families being split up because treatment cannot be provided at Wellington Hospital.

The board's child health manager, Kaye Hudson, says the board regrets the "inconvenience to parents and their families" of having to go elsewhere for tertiary treatment. That trivialises it. An inconvenience is having to wait an hour or two to be seen in accident and emergency with a sore finger. It is not being told that your family cannot be together as one of its members battles for his or her life, and that a desperately sick child must travel to Auckland or Christchurch, far away from the friends and family who can provide support during debilitating treatment.

It is a disgrace, not an inconvenience, and an indictment on the management of Capital and Coast District Health. The excuses they offer for shortfalls in services are sounding increasingly thin. The board lost one child cancer specialist in July. Now Anne Mitchell has also announced she is departing, and Wellington Hospital is left with no child cancer specialists.

New Zealand cannot and should not offer advanced child cancer treatment in every provincial city. That is neither viable nor sensible. However, Wellington is not a provincial city. It is the capital city, with a hospital expected to provide tertiary services for the whole lower North Island. Nor are the problems with providing cancer treatment to children the only area in which Capital and Coast District Health Board struggles.

This March three anaesthetics staff stepped down from positions, threatening the hospital's ability to train anaesthetists, though one subsequently withdrew his resignation.

Other specialists have also had enough. In the same month surgeon John Keating resigned from general surgery, citing as one factor access to operating theatres, which he said often left surgeons waiting hours for a theatre to become available for acute surgery.

The ongoing problems the board has in providing mental health services are well known.

Capital and Coast is not the only district health board to face problems in both attracting and retaining staff. In the 18 months to July, New Zealand lost at least 80 specialists, but that is no excuse for what is happening in Wellington.

Earlier this year when National questioned the health spending, Health Minister Pete Hodgson trumpeted a 25.3 per cent jump in the number of medical staff between 2001 and 2006, and a 24.1 per cent increase in the number of nurses over the same period.

He would do better to be asking why, with those staffing increases, and a health budget of $11.3 billion, two-year-old cancer-sufferer Kyah Milne cannot get the treatment she needs in her hometown of Wellington.

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