Open up on health

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Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden is vowing to push for openness despite censorship constraints on her new health-watchdog group. 

Van Uden chairs the Wakatipu Health Com­munity Reference Group, formed at the behest of a National Health Board panel of experts. 

The Wakatipu group is effectively a watchdog over Southern District Health Board’s implementation of major Queenstown health reforms. 

The reforms were ordered by the national panel last year after the fast-growing Wakatipu was short­changed for decades by the Invercargill- and Dunedin-centric SDHB. 

However, the local group’s terms of reference – which had to be approved by SDHB last week – indicate the secretive health board may try to muzzle the mayor and her colleagues. 

Two secrecy provisions in the terms of reference contradict fine words about “communicating clearly and openly with [public] stakeholders” and “disclosing information about progress both positive and negative”. 

The secrecy provisions say “public comment may be made on information and discussion at meetings unless otherwise agreed” – and “the final item at each meeting will be to agree what information will be available to media and stakeholders”. 

A doctor from SDHB’s Lakes District Hospital is a member of Van Uden’s group, and SDHB finance boss Robert Mackway-Jones is also “in attendance” at meetings. 

The implication is that lack of agreement by either SDHB employee could prevent Van Uden group’s from going public. 

However, the mayor remains upbeat. 

“The Wakatipu com­munity has invested an awful lot [in the local health campaign] – both in terms of standing up for what they want and also in the time and effort they gave to the National Health Board consultation,” she says. 

“They now deserve to know what’s happening and what progress is being made,” she says. 

“I’m 100 per cent determined to keep developments as open and transparent as possible.” 

Van Uden also expresses confidence in Mackway-Jones from her dealings to date – “We’re getting very open stuff from him.” 

Mackway-Jones will sometimes give her group a “heads-up” on something but ask them to keep it confidential until everything’s finalised, she says. 

“It’s not skulduggery or anything – he just doesn’t want to create expectations which he can’t deliver.” 

Van Uden reveals her top priority amongst the 21 re­commendations from the national panel – and it’s not the CT scanner. 

She wants a rapid improvement in outpatient services at Queenstown’s hospital to “get some quick runs on the board”. 

“Rather than 10 local people travelling miles and miles to visit a specialist in Invercargill, we should get that specialist to come up here. 

“Then it’s only one person travelling miles and miles,” Van Uden says.