Media Release - Retiring Hospital Scientist on Three Decades of Changes

Former Kaitaia Hospital Laboratory Charge Alan Simkins has retired nineteen years to the day after he began working in the lab.

Beginning with what was then the Kaitaia Hospital Board in 1998, November 17 2017 saw the 69 year old farewelled by colleagues four years after he hit 65 and reduced his hours to half time.

Alan had been the charge scientist across years when Hospital Boards changed to District Health Boards at the end of 2000 / beginning of 2001.

A charge scientist is responsible for the management and technical input of the lab. The job came with political and technological challenges, too.

“At the time I began, both the hospital and the laboratory were under threat of closure. Lots of reviews were going on as to whether they should rationalise the health service in NZ. Kaitaia is famous in NZ for having had mass protests to protect the hospital.”

“The lab was being reviewed and it was considered whether private pathology would take over. So there was uncertainty when I arrived, but Northland Health management came to the right decision to support the hospital and also to invest more money into equipment and people.”

After Alan replaced previous lab charge Brian Green, 16 years of near-constant change began. “We were changing every day – equipment, ISO accreditation – which took a lot of hard work, and we were a standalone lab at the beginning which meant we weren’t really affiliated with Whangarei. Gradually over the years we moved to the centre a little bit.”

“We standardised standard operating procedures and equipment and our computers were all linked. All in all, I would say almost from day one, in my time, the lab has done nothing but change. Every time it’s changed the quality has gone up and the service has improved and it’s been a hell of a ride.”

Making medicine more community-oriented has been particularly significant, Alan reckons. “There is now more screening, more money, more addressing of poverty and associated illnesses – that made pathology busier and busier, so we got bigger equipment. So we’re all linked in to the development of community medicine in the Far North.”

With 11 staff, the laboratory looks after biochemistry testing, blood banking, coagulation and microbiology, supported by specimen services (phlebotomy, specimen registration and sendaway tests), blood tests, lab cultures, coagulation and more.

The Kaitaia lab team are particularly tight-knit and dedicated. Laboratory biochemist Glenys Urlich has given an incredible 43 years. Teresa Travers, overseeing haematology, has been with the lab 34 years. Cindy Hassan, who has just moved to Northland Pathology in Whangarei, had been with the lab 29 years. Other long-serving staff in Alan’s team have included Jenny Thompson (13 years) and Vanessa Goodwin (11 years).

Neil Wood, who succeeded Alan as charge scientist four years ago, cited Alan’s guidance of the laboratory to IANZ accreditation as a particularly important contribution. Another was that Alan published research in 2013 showing that fasting lipids were not necessary for the NZ Cardiovascular Disease Program. This eliminated the need for patients to fast overnight and return to the laboratory in the morning. It also enabled easier management of phlebotomy (blood) services.

“There have been many changes to the laboratory over Alan‘s tenure from moving from hand written reports to complete computerisation and installation of modern instrumentation,” Neil said. “Today, an efficient modern laboratory provides a 24/7 service to the Kaitaia community which they can be proud of.”

“Alan is a kind soul and a good bloke and always willing to help out even on his days off. With a dry sense of humour Alan was always there to support and encourage his colleagues.”

While Alan said he “could have gone on for longer,” a lifestyle block accident earlier in the year, in which he fell through a garage skylight and broke multiple bones, made him reassess his life-work situation.

“My wife has banned me from ladders, roofs and chainsawing, any combination of the three! But in retrospect everybody has said how stupid I was. Put it down to old age.”

“I was off work for three months. I gradually got most of my functions back again. It made me think, why wait ’til you’re poorly or disabled before retiring?

Alan Simkins with colleagues at his farewell

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