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Southland Hospital on brink of collapse, cancer care advocate claims

Oct 10, 2022

Cancer care advocate Melissa Vining says Southland Hospital is on the brink of collapse.

She has received a large number of messages and staff outlining their concerns and has been told the hospital's Paediatric Assessment Unit has been closed for three weeks now - and is not likely to open for at least three more. In addition, Lakes and Gore district patients destined for Southland Hospital were being diverted to Dunedin due to staff shortages.

One message Vining received from a staff member at Southland Hospital said "staff are crumbling, breaking down every shift, despite continually giving it their all to keep the patients safe".

"We are in dire staffing crisis," the staff member told Vining.

"Our medical patients from Lakes and Gore have to be diverted to Dunedin due to medical staff shortages and last week we had no orthopaedic consultant on call as they were short - so we're unable to admit any high risk orthopaedic patients that require surgery. They had to all be sent to Dunedin.

"Ward beds also continue to be closed due to nursing staffing shortages."

Te Whatu Ora Southern confirmed the Paediatric Assessment Unit had been closed "on and off" for the past three weeks and some care was being deferred.

"I am receiving a number of concerns from SDHB [Southern District Health Board] patients and staff about the catastrophic state of the health system," Vining said in a social media post.

"A number of Southland Hospital Staff are breaking down every shift due to unsafe staffing levels, they are doing everything they can to keep patients safe. Andrew Little safely staff our hospitals! Patients and staff deserve better."

Vining's late husband Blair died in 2019 after a year-long battle with bowel cancer.

The 39-year-old Southland father-of-two was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2018 and told he only had weeks to live.

Due to delays, he could not even get an appointment with an oncologist through the public sector.

After seeking treatment through the private sector, Vining started a petition calling for the establishment of a national cancer agency and an overhaul of cancer care nationwide.

It garnered more than 140,000 signatures and many of his hopes for reform were covered by the government's Cancer Action Plan.

Vining said cancer services in the south were still letting patients down.

She had been told of "clinically unsafe wait times in oncology, some patients are missing out on precious survival time, and suffering from treatable pain".

A Te Whatu Ora spokesperson confirmed some of Vining's claims.

"The Paediatric Assessment Unit (PAU) is usually open from 10am - 10pm, Monday - Friday. The unit has been closed on and off for three weeks due to RMO staff shortages. We are likely to fully open in late October," the spokesperson said.

"Children who would normally be assessed in PAU are being assessed in the ward or the Emergency Department. The Paediatric team will go to where the child is.

"Previously, a small number of patients from Lakes District Hospital and Gore who would normally be transferred to Southland Hospital, were transferred directly to Dunedin Hospital. This was due to RMO staff shortages within the medical team at Southland Hospital.

"Most patients received orthopaedic assessment and surgery as usual within hours at Southland Hospital. Last week there were two patients transferred to Dunedin by helicopter out of hours for urgent orthopaedic care as Southland Hospital was unable to provide an out of hours orthopaedic service."

Te Whatu Ora Southern was working to balance patients' health care needs with staff wellbeing, the spokesperson said.

"We are deferring some planned care outpatient clinics and theatre cases, utilising locums where able to support our clinical staff (including on call shifts) and co-ordinating locations of acute care across the district.

"The wellbeing of our staff is a very high priority at Te Whatu Ora Southern. We know staff are working above and beyond every day. We greatly appreciate our staff's dedication, commitment, and support to our community."

Staff had been disrupted by Covid-19 and other winter illnesses which had led to staff absences and the organisation was "actively recruiting to fill vacant positions," the spokesperson said.

"Health is 24/7 365-day service, and we are constantly balancing the needs and safety of our patients while ensuring our staff have a well-deserved break."

Main image (Google Maps): Te Whatu Ora Southern has confirmed the Paediatric Assessment Unit at Southland Hospital had been closed "on and off" for the past three weeks. 

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