Patients with chronic health problems have had surgery delayed after a Wairarapa Hospital unit was declared unsafe.
Senior medical staff say patient welfare has been put at risk since the hospital's high dependency unit was "needlessly" declared unsafe by hospital managers.
During the past month, patients with chronic lung, heart and other illnesses who required surgery have either been taken to Hutt Hospital and back, or have had to wait, after hospital management banned the unit from admitting post-surgical patients with pre-existing serious health problems.
After pressure from senior medical staff, this week hospital management relaxed the ban, which staff said demoralised them and put patients at risk.
A senior member of the hospital's medical staff said the ban was a "bureaucratic" response to concerns from Wellington Hospital's intensive care unit, where four patients died after having been transferred from Wairarapa's HDU.
He said staff were told admissions to the unit were restricted because of management concerns that it was "unsafe".
Wairarapa and Hutt Valley District Health Boards chief executive Graham Dyer confirmed the deaths, but said they probably represented a "statistical anomaly". He did not believe the Wairarapa unit was unsafe.
However, documents seen by The Dominion Post confirm Wairarapa DHB does have safety concerns about the unit.
Wairarapa District Health Board chairman Bob Francis confirmed the HDU review was in response to the Wellington deaths, which he said took place over a period of "more than a year".
Mr Dyer said four patients had to be transferred to Hutt Hospital while the Wairarapa HDU restriction was in place.
However, the senior staff member believed the number was higher, saying that frail, elderly patients were being driven back over the Rimutaka Hill two to four days after surgery - the most dangerous post-operative period.
"That's when they can have a heart attack, pneumonia, wound infections - [and] that's when they're being transported." At least one patient developed complications after being sent back from the Hutt Valley while still medically unstable, he said.
He acknowledged there was "room for improvement" in the unit but said the "needless" restriction should never have been imposed without consulting doctors and nurses.
Any continuation of the restriction would cut the hospital's surgeries by 30 to 40 per cent, damaging its viability as a small rural hospital, he said.
Mr Dyer said the restriction was not a prelude to downsizing. "There are no plans to reduce capability or capacity at Wairarapa Hospital. In fact we're looking at the opposite."
Hospital chief medical officer Iwona Stolarek said she was satisfied with the consultation carried out before the restriction, which she called a "new surgical pathway".
The review of the unit was expected to conclude within six weeks, she said.
E-mails and letters to Mr Dyer from 16 senior medical staff, seen by The Dominion Post, show the extent of clinicians' concerns. "HDU . . . just needs ongoing development - not a freezing of function and then a prolonged bureaucratic response that leads to confusion and demoralisation," one senior doctor said in an e-mail.
According to Bob Sahakian, consultant general surgeon at the hospital and Wairarapa branch officer for the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the restriction on the unit was "bureaucratic and heavy-handed" and could have led to service cuts, but "corrections have been made".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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