Palmerston North Hospital staff frustrations boil over at board meeting

Palmerston North Hospital doctors are angry and unhappy with MidCentral Health’s executive team.
Palmerston North Hospital doctors are angry and unhappy with MidCentral Health’s executive team.

An explosive exchange at a district health board meeting has exposed the lack of trust medical staff have in management.

Sparks flew over internet connections as MidCentral District Health Board chairman Brendan Duffy shouted down complaints from Palmerston North’s senior doctors about poor communication.

Combined medical staff association chairwoman Nathalie de Vries led a group to the board’s virtual meeting on Tuesday to talk about a lack of progress in improving relationships with chief executive Kathryn Cook and her executive team.

They had earlier signed a letter of no-confidence, which has not been made public, and Tuesday’s meeting included a brief update on an action plan of improvements.

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Surgeon Geoff Anderson told board members staff had very little confidence the $27.5 million Spire project in construction would deliver the level of improvements needed to the hospital’s acute and surgical services facilities.

But they had accepted it as an interim measure because otherwise MidCentral would go to the back of the Ministry of Health’s queue for hospital upgrades.

Anderson said one of the keys to managing the demand for urgent and surgical care during the rebuilding would be the board’s relationship with Crest private hospital.

Doctors had been told three months ago a contract would be signed within two weeks, enabling Crest to build an additional operating theatre and provide care for more public patients – but there was still no contract.

Duffy started intervening, saying a board meeting was not the right forum for staff to be raising issues that should be dealt with by managers, not governors.

At some stage, Anderson left the online meeting.

Board members used the chat function on their screens to variously describe the exchange as “terrible”, “not constructive” and “could have been handled much better”.

Duffy said he was not impressed that “one person made a comment that there is little support for the Spire project, then walked out”.

“I cannot believe we are having this sort of conversation. There seem to be unrealistic expectations.”

Palmerston North Hospital’s surgical department is getting an overhaul senior staff say is not enough.
Murray Wilson/Stuff
Palmerston North Hospital’s surgical department is getting an overhaul senior staff say is not enough.

Board chief executive Kathryn Cook said she apologised if there had been a lack of clear communication with staff about negotiations with Crest Hospital about the $30m contract, and about the detail and complexity involved.

She said “maybe we talked past each other”, and explained there was a lag between reaching an agreement, and putting signatures on contracts.

De Vries said the exchange was an example of the sort of ongoing issues about communication the doctors were complaining about.

“We are told things will happen in a couple of weeks, then they don’t. Be honest and tell us.

“I’m glad this happened, it’s hopefully given you some insight.”

It was important for the board to know the culture of communication was just not right, she said.

The doctors said it was not useful for board members to hear staff were not happy, then just move on.

Board member Materoa Mar said it was difficult to manage the conversation virtually, and she did not want to be a party to something disrespectful.

“I don’t think talking over each other is a good way.”

The doctors said the action plan for improving communications had fallen short and was “in pieces”. The combined medical staff were “not happy”.

Duffy said he rejected most of what had been said, and several times said the discussion was “over”.

“It’s management’s job to get on and sort this out.”

Several board members suggested there would be follow-up conversations, possibly after public and media were excluded from the meeting, and Duffy said he was prepared to meet a small group of senior board members and staff another time.