$1.3 million annual hospital cost for Q'town chopper transfers

by Lauren Pattemore - Jan 23, 2023

Helicopter transfers are costly and frequent for Queenstown's Lakes District Hospital, according to information supplied by Te Whatu Ora Southern, with approximately two patients airlifted every week.

Havielarsha Karunakaran (right) and her family.

One patient, 18-year-old Havielarsha Karunakaran, says her helicopter ride to Dunedin Hospital was "scary" - the teen received oxygen for not-yet-diagnosed pneumonia and without a family member on board. Southland MP Joseph Mooney believes these figures add to the discussion about health services in the region.

"I was alone and I was, like, barely breathing, so it was quite scary finding out that I had to go by myself," Havielarsha says.

Data released by Te Whatu Ora Southern under the Official Information Act shows in the last financial year, from July 2021 to June 2022, 99 people admitted to Queenstown's hospital were transferred to larger nearby hospitals in Dunedin or Invercargill by helicopter.

According to the health authority a trip to either location costs an average $13,320 - so last year it racked up a $1,318,680 bill for its heli-transfers.

“This all adds to the discussion our region needs to have about what services we need, and if, when and where we will need a base hospital to service Central Otago/Queenstown-Lakes and take the pressure off Invercargill and Dunedin hospitals," Southland MP Joseph Mooney says.

Southland MP Joseph Mooney says the cost of heli-transfers is part of the wider discussion of where-to for Queenstown's public health services.

The discussion goes beyond financial cost, though, to patient wellbeing.

Havielarsha describes her personal experience, saying she was sent to Dunedin Hospital by helicopter in October because they "couldn't diagnose" what was wrong locally. Crux has previously reported on Havielarsha's experience in Queenstown Lakes District Hospital.

"I thought that I was going to be okay and I would be able to get whatever treatment I needed here [in Queenstown] because they [the hospital staff] said everything was going okay. But then suddenly, they come up to me and told me that they can't do it, they just can't do it and they were sending me to Dunedin."

A nurse from Dunedin in the helicopter made her feel safer during the trip, Havielarsha says, checking everything was alright and holding her hand. "She did not let go for the entirety of the helicopter ride."

For her mother, Sunitha Karunakaran it was also difficult, left behind in Queenstown to rally together Havielarsha's belongings, collect her son from school and drive to meet her daughter in Dunedin.

Ms Karunakaran says it was really challenging because she's never driven that far before. Her daughter was in the Intensive Care Unit for several days and then in the general ward, and Ms Karunakaran found last-minute accommodation in Dunedin to allow her to stay closer. 

"It would have been easier if I was to be able to get the care that I needed from Queenstown and not having to fly all the way over," Havielarsha says.


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