The New Zealand Rural General Practice Network is shocked that the Government’s announcement of half a billion dollars to prepare hospitals for COVID-19 in the community ignores rural communities once again.
The Minister’s pledge to remove the postcode lottery of health care is not being demonstrated in his actions.
Where will Aucklanders and most of provincial New Zealanders flee to this summer? Where will they go next winter during ski season? To their holiday homes, baches, camping grounds, ski fields and Airbnb’s in our beautiful rural backyard.
When COVID hits these visitor hotspots, how are our rural health services and rural hospitals going to care for them?
The Government announced today a $644 million investment in 24 regional hospitals to prepare them for managing COVID patients.
The investment includes $100m towards the addition of 75 new standard inpatient beds, converting 355 existing beds to isolation or negative-pressure environments, 25 new Intensive Care and High Dependency beds, and 8 temporary bed conversions to ICU.
The Network is dismayed that this funding is focused on provincial hospitals, ignoring 30 of our 33 rural hospitals and the vital role they play in keeping rural communities and holiday goers safe.
Rural NZ holiday spots will see a huge influx of visitors this summer and we know that rural hospitals are their first port of call when they get injured or sick.
It is vital that Government works urgently to help them prepare to manage and care for patients who have covid symptoms and prevent others from coming in contact with them.
Clinical Director for Rural Health Dr Jeremy Webber says, “This is not complicated stuff– all rural hospitals are often first ports of call for people who are sick or injured. Those hospitals must be able to screen every person who comes into their Emergency Department in a COVID-safe manner.”
“They need isolation rooms to either treat them on the spot or look after them while they wait for transportation to a provincial hospital. Dependable and appropriately resourced ambulance and transfer systems are critical to being able to do this,” he says.
Rural hospitals have prepared plans to provide those key arrival facilities and safely ventilated isolation rooms, seeking funding from their DHBs to carry out this work. It appears that the DHBs and/or the Government have again prioritised urban over rural.
Network Chief Executive Dr Grant Davidson says, “The Government’s view that COVID patients will only be treated at the larger hospitals included in today’s funding announcement ignores basic human behaviour.”
“We know that when people get sick or injured, they show up at the nearest facility they can find and quite reasonably, expect to be cared for there,” he says.
Government’s approach to today’s announcement makes an unrealistic assumption that rural people accept the massive cost and impact on them of the long waits to be transported to a larger hospital. It assumes they accept they will not have whānau with them when they are sick.
In Southland, the lack of access to transport and the drain on staff to escort patients is also a significant issue, says Debi Lawry from Southern DHB.
“Despite extensive planning and striving to ensure we are building resilience, none of the 6 rural hospitals in the Southern region are prepared for COVID – and Aucklanders started arriving yesterday,” she says.
Rural Hospital Network Chair Ray Anton adds to this saying, “Even though the government is planning on investing significantly on the Health Reforms with the aim to reduce “post code lottery” for access to health services, it continues with a strategy of ignoring Rural Hospitals and health centres, and by default rural communities, in the delivery of health services.”
The Network is pleased that the government is preparing for COVID to impact across NZ but believes it has shamefully omitted to think about all Kiwis, especially those in rural areas where 700,000 of us live and work, and where we will turn to when we get sick or injured over the months ahead.
Is the Minister expecting rural communities to run sausage sizzles to pay for their critical facilities, and use these for visiting holiday makers as well?