88 years ago a mass migration of economic refugees was occurring in Kurow, North Otago as desperate families moved into the area in search of work from the Waitaki hydroelectric dam.

Some even brought their own spades, in case the government did not have enough for them. In fact there was not enough work and an informal settlement formed of desperately poor, unemployed families, on the banks of the river. The local school roll shot from 30 to 300. Andrew Davidson, the local teacher, Gervan McMillan, the local doctor, and Arnold Nordmeyer, the local minister, came together and built a health and its determinants response to the poverty that they saw. It was called the ‘Kurow Cure’ – a scheme based on the concept of justice rather than charity. 

Bob Kerr, our Mt Victoria artist, has created these images of that discussion in his work, The Three Wise Men of Kurow. His work summarizes the key concepts behind the health response they envisaged:

  • It must aim at the prevention of disease
  • It must make provision for income loss
  • It must provide all the facilities for the diagnosis and treatment of disease
  • The service must be based on the principle of the patient’s free choice of doctor
  • It must include the adequate provision for research in all matters relating to health
  • It should be free, it must be complete and it must meet the needs of all the people.

So the concept of a free, universal and comprehensive health service for all New Zealanders was born and incubated in Kurow. It became the blueprint for the Social Security Act of 1938, one of the first internationally recorded expression of what today sits within the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It is known as Universal Health Coverage, which has been developed by World Health Organisation and the World Bank – with a lot less clarity but the same intent as the Kurow Cure.

So what happened?

In this discussion Dr Don Matheson explores what has happened to this vision of health service provision, 80+ years later, especially the last idea, that it should be free, it must be complete and it must meet the needs of all the people.

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