Editorial: Health is more than a staff numbers game

Last updated 05:00 13/12/2012

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OPINION: There are a few essential services citizens of any country have a right to expect and good hospital care is one.

No-one would have enjoyed reading our story on Monday morning about the sad financial state of our district health board's hospitals.

They remain mired in increasing debt and options appear limited. Millions of dollars in cuts have been made in the past two years, apparently with little effect.

When the country is struggling with high levels of unemployment, more job losses are not the answer. Taranaki continues to do better than many other regions, but that situation is a precarious one and more significant job losses at our hospitals could have a serious impact, both economically and socially.

That said, something clearly needs to be done. The board's projected surplus is no longer realistic. The best scenario for the latest financial year is to break even.

That is why board members Pauline Lockett and Flora Gilkison, concerned about the habitual budget over-runs, suggested at a meeting last week that it might be time to approach the community for funding if services continued to be unaffordable.

That would take a significant change in thinking from many in the community. Hospital services general manager Rosemary Clements pointed out "efficiency" projects were already under way.

Naturally, there is bound to be unease within the ranks of the hospital staff, who are the hospitals' biggest expense, but also their biggest asset. In the past two years, there have been $7 million of staff savings.

All too often "efficiency" projects focus on taking the scalpel to staff numbers. It is hoped that Ms Clements might avoid that and think outside the proverbial square in her quest to save money.

The most recent monthly financial performance report shows that cutting staff numbers appears to have had limited success. The hospital operations debt is forecast to exceed the budgeted $6.48m debt for 2012-2013.

Chairwoman Mary Bourke has sensibly said more information is necessary before any decisions are made about how to raise more funds.

Finance and corporate services general manager George Thomas puts the costs down to personnel, another word for staff, sourcing locum staff and clinical supplies.

This situation could be the crossroads for the board and, in future, any decisions made will be seen as pivotal to the ability of the region's hospitals to serve their communities as they should.

Hospitals are unique service providers however, and simply cannot continue to cut staff. Patient welfare is directly linked to staff numbers and their ability to cope. It can be a matter of life or death.

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Interestingly, this debate is taking place against the backdrop of criticism by some patients about levels of service at Taranaki Base Hospital.

If the present financial model is unsustainable, maybe it is time for our three National MPs to be putting a case forward for increased funding. Few issues are as important to Taranaki's welfare.

- Taranaki Daily News

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