15 Apr 2024

The empty surgical hospital that could be slashing waiting lists

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 April 2024

The state-of-the-art Tōtara Haumaru hospital looks like a show home for health - but just like a show home, you can't stay the night 

The new Tōtara Haumaru building at North Shore Hospital.

The new Tōtara Haumaru building at North Shore Hospital. Photo: Rowan Quinn / RNZ

A healing garden with plants reaching up several floors is to be a unique feature of the newly built $320 million surgical hospital at North Shore, with studies showing it brings benefits of faster recovery and reduced stress in patients, and happier staff.

Funded by the charity Well Foundation through donations, the garden will be the first of its kind in New Zealand and was to open this month along with the state-of-the-art Tōtara Haumaru hospital. 

But the facility of 150 beds, eight operating theatres and four endoscopy suites remains empty, no patients or staff, no certain date for opening.

Staff looking out the windows of the old North Shore hospital just metres away are frustrated to see the lights are on, the beds and furniture are in place and there are signs of new surgical equipment, but they can't work there.

Te Whatu Ora will only say it will open mid-year, blaming staff shortages and lack of operating budget. The Health Minister Shane Reti says it should be open by June but that will not include the entire hospital, says RNZ's health correspondent, Rowan Quinn who broke the story last week.

She says the health agency has been reluctant to give details.

"It's been in the pipeline a long time. It was years ago that work started on this building and it replaced the old maternity building," she tells The Detail. "Te Whatu Ora says it didn't want to take valuable resources that are doing operations in other parts of the city and divert them here if it wasn't ready to go."

Doctors don't buy that argument, she says.

The facility stands unused while ageing health services around the region are weighed down by high patient numbers and long waiting lists. The emergency department at North Shore's old hospital has been forced to again put patients in corridors due to pressure on services. Whangarei Hospital has been in dire need of an upgrade for years, says Quinn. Elsewhere in the country hospitals and clinics are desperately waiting for funding, including the new $1.6 billion Dunedin Hospital which has faced numerous budget blowouts.

"It is a problem for New Zealand that these public hospitals are really in dire need of an upgrade."

Quinn has been told by surgeons that it will be difficult to get enough staff in time for a June opening date for the first two levels.

"You need nurses, you need anaesthetic technicians, you need dedicated cleaners and security guards. Not every surgeon that works here will be dedicated to this facility but it will be a big job to get it up and running by June."

Reti is getting weekly updates on the hospital's progress but Quinn points out that the money required to get it operating is needed at a time when government finances are squeezed. 

"This is a government that's talking about cutting back on public service spending so it will be really interesting to see when the health budget comes out next month whether this is specifically mentioned, and the kind of spending is allocated to the health system in general."

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