Cancer service in doubt

22:53, Apr 20 2009
HARD TRAVELLING: Wellington cancer patient Stephen Uelese and his mother, Marika Broad, endured months of fortnightly trips to Christchurch for treatment before the two doctors arrived.

Wellington region child cancer patients may have to travel to other centres permanently for complex treatment, after the resignation of two paediatric oncologists.

Husband-and-wife team Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao will leave Wellington Hospital in August. They arrived from Germany with their family last October to reopen the service, which had been forced to close by the resignation of their predecessors. For nine months, gravely ill patients were sent to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment.

At a press conference this afternoon, Capital and Coast District Health Board chief executive Ken Whelan said the hospital's paediatric oncology service had a "chequered history". The health board had to look for a long-term, sustainable solution.

"We can't have this service on-again, off-again."

Wellington Hospital would continue to provide a tertiary child cancer service till August. "It is not closing the doors on Monday. It is business as usual."

But Capital and Coast would be working with the Health Ministry and other district health boards to find a long-term solution after that.

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One option would be sending patients to Christchurch or Auckland for complex, tertiary treatment and continuing to provide secondary child cancer treatment at Wellington.

Mr Whelan said there was no single reason why the couple had resigned, but they were frustrated with a lack of support services around them. Paediatric oncology needed support from specialised staff in many disciplines, including pharmacy, nursing, pathology and radiology.

"The reality is that providing paediatric oncology services is a highly specialised area and there are a lot of workforce issues, especially in an area where the patient volumes are very small."

It was "probably unrealistic" to attract and retain such a workforce in a centre the size of Wellington, he said. The service had only eight new child cancer patients in the past six months.

Clinical director of child health services Graeme Lear said a paediatric oncologist had already been employed and would start work in May, initially as a locum.

An international recruitment search was under way to find suitable specialists to fill the permanent positions.

The service manages around 25 new referrals a year and provides highly complex treatments that in most countries were not usually available in public hospitals the size of Wellington's, Dr Lear said.

"We acknowledge that this news may be of considerable concern to our patients and their families and wish to reassure them and future patients in the lower North Island that we are doing everything to ensure continuing access to best practices in clinically appropriate timeframes."

Child Cancer Foundation central region chairman John Robson said Drs Chao and Kratz had provided excellent treatment and their resignations raised concerns about the DHB's ability to deliver on undertakings about the stability of Wellington's child cancer service.

Dr Chao was not prepared to discuss why they were quitting, but said she and her husband were "really sorry it's not working out".

- with NZPA

The Dominion Post