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Health Ministry Defend $800,000 Trave Budget

OVERSEAS travel by Ministry of Health staff is an essential part of building a strong public health system which gives New Zealanders the best of international thinking and practice, Director-General of Health Dr Karen Poutasi says. It is not a perk.

"I make no apologies for what I see as a cost-effective use of our administrative Budget," Dr Poutasi said today.

Her comments followed suggestions that overseas travel costs of $0.8 million for Ministry of Health staff over a one-year period were extravagant, and could have been better spent on health services. The headline in a newspaper story suggests it was twice this.

"Underpinning everything we do in the Ministry is the urge to make our public health system the best and the safest it can be in meeting the needs of New Zealanders with health problems or disabilities."

"But we're a very small country, a long way from anywhere else. We can't do that working in splendid isolation. We work very closely with our Australian neighbours and look for international best practice, to underpin our advice to Government."

"I can point to a range of things happening in our health sector right now that have been begged or borrowed from overseas. We are, for example, working with laboratories in three countries, and with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, to develop a vaccine which will protect New Zealanders against the particular strain of meningococcal bacteria responsible for an epidemic which has killed 22 New Zealanders already this year and 97 in the preceding four years. We have been able to use our WHO connections to assist New Zealand in addressing this."

"An amendment to the Medicines Act earlier this year means New Zealand nurses will soon be able to prescribe some drugs in some circumstances. We would be derelict in our duty if we didn't look at the way other countries with similar laws ensured nurse-prescribing was safe and effective."

People in some parts of the country will benefit from another example of "plagiarism" next year when the Healthline pilots are set up. Healthline - an 0800 service giving New Zealanders access to health information and advice - is modelled on a British initiative which the Ministry's chief nursing advisor saw in action in the UK and brought back to the Ministry as something which could benefit many people here, Dr Poutasi said.

The list goes on: safety is the subject of many of our international exchanges - the safety of our food, our medicines, our blood supply for example.

"From our Australian travel we have identified the possibility of using Australian trainers and training programmes to develop parts of our mental health workforce. This is going to be an important initiative."

"Additionally we have a number of international commitments: being a member of the World Health Organisation, for example, means taking part in international meetings they convene. Similarly we belong to a number of medical, nursing, public health, Commonwealth and other international bodies which means being represented at events held overseas. Meeting these international commitments accounts for one third of the Ministry's spending on travel out of New Zealand."

"One-off events - such as the Y2K bug - have also accounted for some overseas travel as we prepared to ensure the safety of New Zealanders in hospital or needing healthcare at the turn of the millennium," Dr Poutasi said. "Australia uses similar hospital equipment to ours and comparisons have helped us greatly."

The spending on travel is just over 1 per cent of the Ministry of Health's total Budget. In terms of the total health budget represents it represents 0.012 per cent.

For more information contact: Frances Ross Chief media advisor Tel: 496 2202/025 512 833.

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