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Neurosurgery Decision A Great Day For Southerners!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Today the people of Otago and Southland are celebrating the big neurosurgery decision.

Health Ministry acting director general Andrew McKernan announced that Dunedin will retain its neurosurgery services. In a true win-win scenario the city will gain one additional surgeon as well as a neurosurgery professor and senior lecturer position. This will enable Dunedin Hospital (which also serves as a teaching hospital for Otago University medical students) to offer comprehensive neurosurgery coverage. At the same time, Christchurch has something to celebrate as well with an additional neurosurgeon being appointed to that region's neurological service. Overall, the people of the Lower South Island will be served by a cross-regional seven surgeon neurosurgical service to be overseen by a clinical board.

People power is what has secured this victory. Nearly 10,000 people marching in Central Dunedin, a 55,000 signature petition and well attended public meetings have all demonstrated the depth of feeling on this issue in my part of the world. Otago has taken a fair beating under the population based funding (PBF) system with health services being cut across the board. For nearly thirty years, in fact, the people of Otago have had to wage unsuccessful fights to retain hospital services while winning others (for example, in gaining a body scanner). Now with PBF and an even more constrained health funding environment, Otago and Southland residents have had to fight to even retain basic hospital level services like neurosurgery.

If the decision had gone the other way today, then health services would have suffered in the region. But the people who would have suffered most would be those requiring life saving neurosurgery. There was the strong possibility (as the Health Ministry's neurosurgical services panel agreed) that Otago/Southland people in urgent need of surgery would not have survived the trip to Christchurch. For people who needed non-urgent surgery or even assessment, the financial and emotional costs involved in getting to and from the originally proposed Canterbury neurosurgery hub would have been too great. The Southern District Health Board would have lost out financially through not only the potential loss of services but in having to fund additional patient transfers (referred to in health bureaucratspeak as Inter District Flows or IDFs) to Canterbury.

But today's decision has spared the Otago/Southland region of this agony. It has shown what a people, united across political and geographical boundaries, can do when the chips are down. The Nats, in their eagerness to win a second term, will now be presenting this decision as a triumph to cover up for the fact that Health Minister Tony Ryall ordered this inquiry in the first place. And it will provide an example to the people of provincial New Zealand about how to successfully campaign for the retention of essential social services in their regions.

Therefore, as a parochial southerner, I am prepared to celebrate this magnificent victory!



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