The way has been cleared for access to resume to a clinical records storage area at Dunedin Hospital, subject to an environmental clean. 


Access to the records storage area in the basement of the hospital was restricted since late 2016 after testing showed some localised traces of asbestos.


The Southern DHB initiated a precautionary response based on ensuring a safe environment was maintained for staff, patients and the public.


The DHB’s asbestos management across all its sites has since undergone a wide-ranging review.


As part of this, more sophisticated testing in the records storage area was undertaken which involved sending samples to the United States. The results have led to the decision to prepare to re-enter this area.


“We reviewed the methodology using a more specific and detailed test. This test is better at identifying and isolating asbestos fibres whereas the previous testing method included other fibres which could be confused with asbestos. After extensive sampling, we now have confidence this area is below Worksafe’s permissible safe limits of asbestos,” says Southern DHB CEO Chris Fleming.


“Our initial response was very cautious and we don’t apologise for that. The welfare of our staff is of paramount importance and we were working with the information we had at the time.


”This is good news for staff and good news for patients.”


The process for retrieving clinical information has generally functioned well during the closure with electronic records covering most clinical needs. When accessing a paper record was deemed clinically critical, an established protocol was used to access the basement and retrieve the information. However the situation has been far from ideal, particularly for those areas such as mental health that housed many of their records there.


A thorough environmental clean of the records storage area is now underway.


“There’s been a lot of concern among staff and, while the new tests put the area in the clear for asbestos, it is only human to have lingering doubts. We want to recognise that and give staff confidence in handling these records in the future.


The environmental clean will start take part in stages over the next two months, and is expected to cost around $300,000.


“It’s an expensive process but we also have to remember it is an old building and this area has been closed for a long period so there has been a build-up of dust.”


Mr Fleming praised the way the clinical and records teams responded to the situation and it was pleasing this vital section of their working environment was returning to normal.


“Nobody will be at risk working there, and nobody will be at risk by handling records.”


The asbestos review and new test results will have an impact on the way Southern DHB manages asbestos, says Southern DHB General manager facilities and property Paul Pugh.


“We’re doing asbestos management surveys across the board. A lot of areas which have been closed down are starting to reopen based on these fresh facts and approach.


“We’re looking at a better way of managing asbestos, we’re continually trying to make our processes better for our staff and patients.”


Individuals who have requested their records through patient affairs, but whose requests have not been able to be fulfilled, will be contacted directly once the records area is ready to enter.