Health Minister details services for cut-off East Coast

8:43 pm on 23 February 2023
Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall

Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Access to health services is problematic for some cyclone-hit communities, cut off from major centres, and patients and authorities face major challenges in providing health care in some places.

Wairoa deputy mayor Denise Eaglesome-Karekare said residents of Wairoa normally relied on travelling south to Napier and Hawke's Bay for doctors visits, specialists visits and general health care.

But with Waka Kotahi signalling the road south from the town would be closed for several months because of damage from Cyclone Gabrielle, they could not get through to access healthcare.

Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall told Checkpoint it was "an incredibly challenging situation," and health care was available remotely through telehealth, with clinicians able to signal if patients' need to be transferred by air.

"We've been already working with Wairoa by making sure that Starlinks are going to be delivered there today along with iPads and laptops so they have the ability to reach out for services when they need it," Verrall said.

"Of course, if necessary, if people need to have urgent care we might have to use helicopters for that. We try and every day make sure that we're hearing from the welfare people on the ground about what support and other resources need to be brought in."

This handout photo taken on December 11, 2019 and released by the Royal Australian Air Force on December 12, 2019 shows a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster in Christchurch prepareing to repatriate the Australians injured during the White Island volcanic eruption -

An air ambulance transfer (file photo) Photo: AFP / Department of Defence

New Zealand's existing air ambulance service could transport people if needed, she said.

"But the point is we need to make sure that we continue to support people where we can through consultations through telehealth and by being in touch with the welfare people ... regularly, which the team are."

However, the situation was less clear when it came to what would happen for those who need ongoing non-emergency medical treatment in the months before the road reopened, and those that had chronic long-term conditions rather than acute sudden issues.

Verrall said people would have to be assessed to determine if they were a priority and those in charge in Wairoa were able to ask for assistance with specific cases.

"I know that when we had the situation with the road out between Napier and Hawke's Bay people were making arrangements for the patients they had in care, for example dialysis patients, and prioritising them for transfer.

"So the clinicians looking after those patients do ... work locally with the officials and the health incident team, to make those arrangements for people.

"We back the team on the ground to make those sort of assessments around people who require acute care."

People who had scheduled treatments or non-urgent care would be assessed to determine the priority of their needs, she said.

"The way we do that ... is to make sure that the clinicians, who are the people who know what their patients' needs are, have an avenue for escalating that, and that where necessary those decisions about transfer - including by air where required - are made."

When asked what budget air transfers would come out of, Verrall said the air ambulance service did not only transfer people in emergencies, they could also transfer people with acute needs.

When asked if people in Wairoa could expect the same level of access to the treatment they need with the road out, Verrall said the situation was difficult.

"I don't want to put a gloss on it, it is extremely challenging for people.

"We will make sure that people with acute needs are looked after ... and we're doing multiple things to make sure that we're reaching in, finding out about their needs and coming up with practical solutions.

"But we are doing things like making sure that they have ways for example of getting their prescriptions of getting access to ... telehealth services to make sure that as much as possible we're able to give them the care they need."

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