Mobile Health celebrates 20th year serving rural communities

This month Mobile Health celebrated its 20th anniversary. A milestone for the organisation who have successfully treated over 29,000 patients on the Mobile Surgical unit.

“It’s a good time to reflect on the bold ideas and brave support behind getting the Mobile Surgical Unit built, and on the road,” Mark Eager, chief executive, Mobile Health says. “While there was a lot of support at the time, some people certainly said it could never be done. There continues to be sufficient demand for several surgical units, so this is clear evidence that bold ideas are often the best ideas.”

In the last 20 years, the surgical unit has proven to be a safe and efficient way to deliver health services to more than 700,000 rural Kiwis.

The 1990s were a challenging time for healthcare in rural New Zealand
In the 1990s, rural communities experienced a sense of loss when rural hospitals suffered a reduction of surgical services and closure due to the government’s health restructuring and economic rationalism. The idea for a mobile surgical unit was initially from Dr Alastair Yule, a Dunedin-based general surgeon. He imagined the surgical service would deliver care close to where rural patients resided.

Turning a dream into reality
Dr Stuart Gowland and Dr Jon Cadwallader had developed a mobile kidney stone vehicle a few years prior, so they were ideally placed to turn Dr Yule’s idea into reality. There was universal support from rural communities, but resistance from some in the health system at that time. The support from the then Minister of Health Hon Dame Annette King was instrumental, and in December 2000, the project secured a five-year service contract with the Ministry of Health.

“Although the Ministry provided a service contract, we also received very generous support from some well-known Kiwis that they secured the $5 million investment required to build the unit. These ‘good buggers’ wanted to do what was right for rural New Zealand, an ethos that remains alive and well within the organisation today,” Mark says.

The surgical unit was constructed by Mills-Tui in Rotorua and launched on 23 November 2001 at Te Papai o Uru Marae in Rotorua. The first official operating day was 8 March 2002 at Ngati Porou Hauora Hospital in Te Puia Springs on the east coast of the North Island.

Partnership key to success
Strong local partnerships have always been core to the service. “When the unit is at a host site, we think that the unit is just an extension of their rural hospital. The staff in each area know the patients, and they are the key to integrating our mobile service into their community. We have 16 sites where we have treated more than a thousand patients and many others approaching that milestone. We sincerely thank every host site, rural nurse, and administration staff for their support in the last 20 years,” he says.

Supporting rural health professionals with education
Training and education for rural health professionals have been at the heart of the service. Initially, there was a significant emphasis on upskilling the rural health workforce to work in a surgical environment, but in the 20 years since, the education program has grown significantly.

Chris Richards, education manager, Mobile Health explains, “Health professionals working in rural and remote areas find it challenging to access education, especially if they need to travel to in-person sessions. It was technically challenging and expensive to deliver live and interactive video education sessions to rural areas 20 years ago. Today we are fortunate to have fast internet access for many, and as a result, the demand is astounding. In the last 12 months alone, we have delivered more than 200 webinars and study sessions, totalling 20,000 plus education hours for health professionals. We would be happy to hear from any health provider who would like support in delivering their online education programmes.”

The road ahead
Demand for elective surgery has always been high, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the system to breaking point in many areas, with significant backlogs of patients needing elective surgery.

Mark says Mobile Health is looking ahead to help meet this demand. “We have started a project to build a new surgical unit. Once completed, one unit will continue its regular rural circuit, while the other will be available for short and medium-term projects in urban areas. In addition, we are close to securing several portable operating theatres, which will be ideal for six to 12-month deployments.”

As we emerge from the pressures of COVID-19, the New Zealand health system reform gives us the opportunity to create a better and more equal system for all. Mark says, “As a company, we have always embraced innovation and backed bold ideas. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that the health system can also adapt and implement scaleable national solutions rapidly. We have enjoyed the last 20 years, but we are even more excited about what the next 20 years will bring.”



About Mobile Health
The Mobile Surgical Unit – Te Waka Hauora is a mobile operating theatre running on a five-week cycle and travels to 25 rural communities to enable access to elective day surgery, from general surgery and gynaecology to orthopaedics, endoscopy, dental and plastic surgery. For more information, visit:

About My Health Hub
Mobile Health has delivered education to rural health professionals for more than 15 years. In the last few years, the education programme has grown significantly, so we needed to make some changes:

• To make webinars more accessible
• To create short courses
• And to streamline administration.

To meet these objectives, a new website was developed for education at:

For further information contact:
Mark Eager
Mobile Health – Chief Executive
[email protected]