Monday, December 31, 2007

Lifeline for child cancer patients

LANE NICHOLS and PAUL EASTON - The Dominion Post | Saturday, 10 November 2007

Wellingotn's embattled child cancer service has been offered a life-saving deal in a bid to stop sick children being sent out of town for treatment.

But it depends on Capital and Coast District Health Board recruiting two child cancer specialists for a service on the brink of death.

Yesterday, Canterbury District Health Board agreed in principle to a shared clinical arrangement to bolster the Wellington service and make it more attractive to paediatric oncologists.

If successful, children with cancer will no longer be sent to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment. Nine have been forced to do so since July.

Wellington lost one of its two child cancer specialists in July and its remaining paediatric oncologist, Anne Mitchell, has resigned and is due to finish at the end of January.

The staff shortage plunged the service into crisis, stripping it of its tertiary status to provide initial assessments and complex therapy.

Capital and Coast approached Canterbury last month to ask for the two child cancer services to work together.

Canterbury chief medical officer Nigel Millar said the board agreed in principle yesterday.

Though Canterbury's two paediatric oncologists would not treat or assess Wellington patients, the clinical director would help organise the Wellington service so patients could be treated there.

Recruiting two new specialists remained a challenge but would be easier with support of Canterbury clinicians, Dr Millar said.

"This is really good for the children and their families. It's good for the development of the service because it gets those specialists working as part of a team."

Dr Millar could not say when the arrangement would be in place but said Canterbury would expect reimbursement.

Capital and Coast chairwoman Judith Aitken said she was pleased the deal had been accepted. Clinicians from both services would begin planning next week.

Wellington was working to fill its two vacancies, a spokesman said.

However, the parents of young patients were wary last night.

Leanne Palenski, whose 13-year-old daughter Shannon has a brain tumour, said nothing had changed.

"We want to see a rock-solid guarantee, not half-baked promises."

The Government should step in to ensure there were proper child cancer services in Wellington.

"What's it going to take, a kid dying? Someone has to stand up for them and make sure they get the treatment they deserve," she said.

Natasha Sadler's son, Memphis Pitman, 13, is being treated at Starship hospital in Auckland. She said she would not take Memphis to Wellington Hospital, even if the deal meant new specialists were recruited.

"Even though it's a hassle and it takes him away from his family, we don't think they are equipped."

Yesterday's announcement came as a survey conducted at Capital and Coast District Health by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists showed a high level of disaffection among senior doctors in middle management. They say Wellington Hospital is heading for a "meltdown" as workforce shortages, staff burnout and unworkable policies compromise patient safety.

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