Spectrum 576. Doctor on the Hokianga

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Tono kōrero mai

Spectrum was a long-running weekly radio documentary series which captured the essence of New Zealand from 1972 to 2016. Alwyn Owen and Jack Perkins produced the series for many years, creating a valuable library of New Zealand oral history.

Jack Perkins interviews Dr Tony Birch whilst travelling on the car ferry to the free clinic in the isolated settlement of Panguru, in Northland’s Hokianga.

The car ferry connects the area hospital at Rawene to the largely māori settlements such as Panguru on the northern side of the Hokianga Harbour. A journey Dr Tony Birch makes from his base at Rawene Hospital to Panguru every Monday and Wednesday, which has increased from visiting once a week as the population doubled in a decade.

The health services are dispensed to Hokianga by means of a scheme which owes its origins to the first Labour government of 1935 – 1949 and Dr Smith, one of Hokianga’s notable figures. Over many years Dr Smith had wrestled with adequately servicing a population which was dispersed and difficult to reach.

The Special Area Health Scheme provides a state funded medical service to all. With roading developments, the car has largely replaced the boat as the primary means of transportation however the area remains isolated.Tony and Jack discuss the isolation and the particular challenges that Tony faces in his work, the economic pressures, poverty and government bureaucracy.

On arrival at Panguru, the benches are full of patients waiting for Tony. Phyllis is the public health nurse who will assist Tony. They have a booking system, however patients usually just turn up within clinic hours. Whilst waiting the community socialise and te kōhanga reo is situated across the road.

Jack begins treating a patients, a girl who suffered an asthma attack in the night and a woman with a baby born with a double cleft palate. They discuss the essential service the free clinic offers to the community which has problems with lack of jobs for the unemployed. The mothers visit the kōhanga reo if they are early and have lunch there afterwards.

An 86 year old patient who is losing his hearing talks to Jack about the numbers of people returning to the area, how many of them are not aware of the free health service. They discuss farming and the need for housing and he speaks in te reo to a family member. The next patient is a two year old having a scheduled check up. The mother praises the essential service the clinic provides for the community.

More patients are called in: student Sam who is suffering from boils, a young girl who requires her plaster cast replaced on her leg and a four month old baby who has teething problems.

Tony and Jack begin the twenty mile car trip by dirt road back to the ferry terminal, taking the patient with them who requires her cast replacing. Whilst travelling Tony remembers how Dame Whina Cooper ‘tried to brow beat’ David Lange at the opening of Mātihetihe Marae about the need for the road to be tar sealed. Tony states his main job satisfaction is meeting people, he would like to be able to help to address some of the alcohol and violence problems affecting the community. He feels strongly that the community needs to be educated and protected from the AIDS epidemic, in particular educating young men. He is concerned on how the AIDS epidemic is presented on the news in New Zealand, which leaves Maori youngsters feeling it is a virus that only affects Pākehā. he believes if it goes the way of every other health crisis, Maori will be most adversely affected by it.

Tony isn’t concerned about future governments cutting funding to the Hokianga’s special health scheme due to the geographical challenges of the area. As he believes there wouldn’t be another way to successfully take care of health in the area. That studies have shown the uptake of the service is comparable to the national average, Tony is confident the system is not being abused by the community.

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Year 1987

Reference number 1515

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Credits RNZ Collection
Birch, Tony, Interviewee
Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Interviewer

Duration 00:29:57

Date 31 May 1987

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