8 Jul 2020

Cancer care advocate and widow Melissa Vining hits out at Southern DHB

12:02 pm on 8 July 2020

Cancer care advocate Melissa Vining has hit out at the Southern DHB (SDHB) saying it is denying patients the care they need and deserve.

Melissa Vining fought back sobs as she told 400 cancer specialists in Wellington what her family has been through after her husband's terminal bowel cancer diagnosis.

Melissa Vining and her husband Blair before he died last October. Photo: RNZ / Karen Brown

Vining addressed SDHB during the public forum at its meeting yesterday.

Her late husband Blair died last October after a year-long battle with bowel cancer.

The 39-year-old Southland father-of-two was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2018 and told he only had weeks to live.

Due to delays, he could not even get an appointment with an oncologist through the public sector.

After seeking treatment through the private sector, Vining started a petition calling for the establishment of a national cancer agency and an overhaul of cancer care nationwide.

It garnered more than 140,000 signatures and many of his hopes for reform were covered by the government's Cancer Action Plan.

Vining continued her husband's advocacy work and had pushed for the establishment of the Southland Charity Hospital, which was now offering colonoscopy services to those ineligible for public services and unable to afford private care south of the Waitaki River.

The hospital would have a permanent base at a former pub, the Clifton Club Inn, following redevelopment and where it was hoped services could be expanded.

Vining told board members she had read five years of SDHB reports to try to understand its failings.

The current members were the first elected representatives to sit on the board since then-minister for health Jonathan Coleman dissolved the board and appointed commissioners in 2015.

Vining said reading the reports made it clear demand for services exceeded capacity.

"Your solution is to focus on ways to reduce the demand - systems that denied patients the care they need," she said.

"Patients cannot refer themselves to those lists so at some point a medical practitioner has requested the test, the appointment or the scan. Not to overload the system but because in their expert medical opinion the patient needs it.

"I'm not denying that at times the referrals may be unnecessary and triaging is required, but what you as a DHB appear to be doing in my opinion is rationing healthcare services from the very people who pay the wages - the taxpayer."

Patients were facing unacceptably long waits for diagnostic services, sometimes up to 11 months, she said.

"Bowel cancer if caught early is curable," she said.

"MOH (Ministry of Health) guidance sets out clear timeframes for people suspected of cancer to receive these important diagnostic procedures.

"People of Otago and Southland are experiencing waits of up to 11 months. Your letter says seven and eight months, but when someone waits three or four months to get the letter in the first place it's actually 11.

"The Southern region - Otago and Southland - have one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the country, one of the highest rates of spread beyond the bowel at the time of treatment and one of the highest rates of emergency surgery for colorectal cancer and yet still one of the lowest rates of colonoscopy."

Specialised clinics suggested

Crown monitor, Dr Andrew Connolly, said in Counties Manukau DHB, specialised colorectal clinics were run to screen patients.

A similar option could be investigated for the SDHB considering the scale of the problem.

"When you have a high rate of a disease the last thing you want to do is restrict access to the diagnosis of it - that's just common sense," he said.

"There's a lot of things we need to do but access to the right investigative test is the key. It's tough when a DHB has got financial problems but this comes down to reprioritising and making the case to the Ministry as Mrs Vining said."

SDHB chair Dave Cull thanked Vining for her submission and ongoing advocacy, and invited her to join the DHB's endoscopy user group to add her voice to its discussions.

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