Cancer Society: southern care issues 'heartbreaking'

by Kim Bowden - Jul 12, 2023

A local advocate for cancer patients says the south is paying the price for decades of under investment in the health workforce, and it is patients who are being harmed the most because of it.

The comments come as those in charge at Dunedin Hospital scramble to cover gaps in care for cancer patients across the southern region.

Yesterday marked the first deadline for a raft of recommendations of an investigation by the Health and Disability Commission released in April, which found the time some cancer patients were given to see a specialist was longer than their life expectancies.

While Te Whatu Ora’s local boss says his team has actioned the required recommendations and is managing to see patients in a timely manner, it is obvious resources remain stretched and it is a juggling act to achieve treatment targets.

Nicola Coom heads the Cancer Society for much of the South Island, including Otago and Southland.

Although she acknowledges the work underway to overcome challenges, she says she remains very concerned about the current situation for cancer services at the hospital.

“The impending departure of the director of training and the staff shortages are worrying. But we know how hard the team is working to rectify this. They are pulling out all stops to recruit and address these workforce shortages.” 

The health authority’s boss for hospital and specialist services in the southern region Dan Pallister-Coward says a specialist from Australia is due at the hospital within the next two months and that will shore up its ability to train junior cancer doctors.

Earlier, it was reported the upcoming loss of a senior staff member in the department could jeopardise its training accreditation.

But the overseas recruit is only promising to stay until the end of the year at least, meaning the situation still appears tenuous.

Also due, Mr Pallister-Coward says, are two extra locums – ring-in doctors – who will complete consecutive there-month stints at the hospital.

Ms Coom says under investment in the health workforce has been occurring for decades.

"We’re now paying the price. It can’t be resolved in three months but it’s heartening to hear of the progress being made and the new appointments in the wings – the families we support here at the Cancer Society need this good news.

“Being diagnosed with cancer is hard enough, but reading in the media every week that the health system that’s supposed to treat you is underperforming and not at capacity is heart breaking.”

Mr Pallister-Coward has explained to Crux the complex jigsaw of care options for southern cancer patients when Dunedin Hospital’s resources fall short – there’s remote consults via a screen, public patients sent to private facilities, and travel to Christchurch or even Wellington Hospitals.

“We are also looking at other locations around the motu where patients may be treated, “ Mr Pallister-Coward says.

It all comes at a considerable cost – both to health budgets and the families at the heart of it, but Ms Coom cautiously welcomes the fixes.

“Hearing that the rest of the country is all pulling together to fill the gaps and that recruitment is happening provides much needed hope.”

She says the answer to Dunedin’s cancer care crisis has to lie in further collaboration.

“The situation is not a Dunedin issue alone and we must stop thinking and responding to it in this way. Under the new Te Whatu Ora health structure this is a South Island issue.”

She cites the new Te Waipounamu/Southern Comprehensive Cancer Collaborative, a multi-sector initiative formed to improve cancer diagnosis, treatment, support services and research across the South Island as a recent success in this space.

The Cancer Society is a part of the working group, as are other community organisations, healthcare providers, and researchers, with an aim to improve, coordinate, share expertise and drive innovative approaches to cancer care. 

“This is exactly how we should be working – collaboratively. Working in isolation hasn’t served us well. The government needs to be prepared to listen and invest in the recommendations that will come from this.

“We must do everything to ensure we do not find ourselves in this situation again, this means regular investment, valuing innovation, workforce planning and collaboration.”

Read more: Southern cancer care worsens months after damning report

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