Saturday, December 2, 2023

Doctors taking strain as rural health shortages persist

Neal Wallace
Survey finds rural hospital doctors feel even more overworked than a year ago.
Gill Naylor, the president of Rural Women New Zealand, says attracting medical professionals to rural areas and retaining them requires a package suited to the whole family, including schools, services and lifestyle.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

A perilous shortage of doctors in rural hospitals has been highlighted in a new report, which warns that four-fifths of doctors say they are burnt out and a third intend retiring within the next five years.

The 2022 workforce survey for rural hospital medicine, conducted by the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, found greater levels of burnout among rural hospital doctors than a year earlier.

Four in five doctors (80%) said they suffered from some degree of burnout; of these, 49% said they were burnt out, more than twice the proportion (21%) of a year earlier.

Only one in five of the respondents (20%) reported not being burnt out.

Despite this, almost three-quarters of rural hospital doctors (72%) said they are likely to recommend a career in rural hospital medicine, with just 7% unlikely to do so.

The government is considering a proposal in terms of which medical schools and health training providers have a specific focus on exposing staff to rural health careers.

It would require all health providers from the medical schools, universities and other providers to work with rural practices to provide training with a rural context.

Jeremy Webber, the clinical director of Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network, said rural health practices continue to be short of clinicians.

“Staffing levels continue to be dire and general practices and nurses continue to under strain to cover basic staffing losses and provide basic health services to rural communities.”

The Ministry of Health is still considering the proposal, which Webber said should encourage more trained professionals to pursue careers in rural practices.

A new challenge is the still unresolved issue of pay parity, which it is feared could prompt rural health staff to move from private practices to hospitals.

Quoting the General Practice Association, Television One recently reported a 27% discrepancy between the salaries of hospital and community nurses and nurses in GP clinics, a figure the government has yet to acknowledge.

Webber said rural health practices are topping up staff wages, but there is a risk of inequality of care between rural and urban communities.

“We need people across the profession,” he said.

The 2022 workforce survey on rural hospital medicine warns of an impending rural hospital doctor shortage with almost a third intending to retire within the next five years and half intending to retire within the next 10 years.

Over a quarter of these respondents (28%) are aged 55 years or older. Four percent of the respondents are aged 24 to 29. The mean age is 45.8.

The sector relies heavily on foreign trained staff with close to half of respondents gaining their first medical degree overseas, with the most common source being the United Kingdom (53%).

Almost a fifth (17%) of respondents intend to leave NZ to live and work elsewhere within the next five years with a further  quarter (23%) uncertain about their intentions.

Two-thirds of respondents (64%) work part-time in rural health medicine up to 35 hours a week. The other third (33%) work full-time, 36 hours a week or more.