Honours List: Cancer researcher lifted lid on healthcare faults

By Martin Johnston

World-renowned cancer researcher Professor David Skegg does not hold back from criticising the failings his work uncovers in public health services.

The 61-year-old vice-chancellor of Otago University has vented strong disapproval of the cervical screening programme.

Professor Skegg, who was born in Auckland, was involved in both the 1980s National Women's Hospital inquiry which led to the programme being set up, and the 2000 Gisborne inquiry into the misreading of cervical smears in the programme.

At Gisborne, he said, it was ridiculous the Labour Government in 1989 decided to set up the programme with 14 computer sites rather than one national agency. It had wasted money and delayed implementation.

He accused the National Government's Health Funding Authority of doing inadequate research on laboratories reading smears for the programme.

And he attacked what he saw as a failure to invest adequately in research and evaluation - a theme he returns to - saying better evaluation of the programme could have picked up the Gisborne problems years earlier.

Despite his criticisms, Professor Skegg now believes the programme has improved.

"I'm delighted with the progress that has been made," he told the Herald this week. "It's great to see the incidence and death rate from cervical cancer coming down so markedly in New Zealand."

But it remained a "challenge" to increase research funding.

"I notice that the National Government - in their tertiary education policy and policy on research, science and technology - talked about putting more money into the Health Research Council and the Marsden Fund and the performance-based research fund.

"I do hope that happens without delay because there really is, I think, an urgent need for better funding of research in New Zealand."

He said the Marsden Fund, for "blue skies" or basic research, was much too small - it has invested $54 million in research this financial year.

The Health Research Council, of which he is a former chairman, also needed more money to distribute - to advance medical knowledge and maintain the quality of healthcare in New Zealand.

Professor Skegg became vice-chancellor in 2004. An old boy of King's College in Auckland, he went on to gain his medical degree at Otago and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where, after gaining a doctorate, he lectured before returning to take up Otago's chair of preventive and social medicine in 1980.

His main research has been in cancer epidemiology. In 2002 a study he had led showed New Zealand's cancer death rate was significantly higher than Australia's.

The New Zealand rate for breast cancer was nearly 30 per cent higher, possibly because the country had lagged behind Australia's advances in the management of the disease.

The same year he participated in a study that debunked the claimed link between vasectomy and prostate cancer. He is also an expert on contraceptive and drug safety, and reproductive health.

Professor Skegg still fits some research around running the university, is an adviser to the World Health Organisation and chairs an international breast cancer research group.

- NZ Herald

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