Saturday, March 2, 2024

Network welcomes ‘mighty first step’ for rural health

Neal Wallace
Workforce plan and election promise ‘reflect our thinking’.
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.
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The Rural Health Network is celebrating two announcements this week that it says give hope the rural health workforce crisis is finally being taken seriously.

Health NZ (Te Whatu Ora) and the Māori Health Authority (Te Aka Whai Ora) have this week released a Health Workforce Plan, and the National Party committed to a third medical school, based at Waikato University and focused on training rural general practitioners, should it win the election.

Rural Health Network (Hauora Taiwhenua) chief executive Grant Davidson said he was celebrating the initiatives, which should address the shortage of rural health professionals.

“We can only do it one step at a time. It is not a panacea for all, but a mighty first step.”

Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford also welcomed the initiatives.

“This is fantastic for rural NZ,” he said, while acknowledging that a third medical school, if it eventuates, would take time.

The Rural Health Network estimates rural practices are short 150 doctors and an unknown number of health professionals.

Half of rural communities do not have a GP. 

Davidson said in addition to increasing the rural health workforce, the retention of existing staff in rural practices must be a priority with extra funding provided for wages and conditions.

The government’s Health Workforce Plan includes funding to scale-up existing successful training initiatives in rural areas and to develop a nationwide framework to co-ordinate rural workforce data, career pathways, and student placements.

“This is to more rapidly grow rural primary care teams that include doctors, nurses, midwives, and others supported and trained to work in rural communities,” said Davidson.

He describes a potential new medical school as a game changer.

“We have a party committing to significant ongoing funding to train the many hundreds more doctors needed across the country,” he said.

“More importantly, they are prepared to fund a new approach that will specifically deal with the rural GP shortage. 

“The network has been promoting this dispersed rural training model for many years and to date been ignored.”

If established, it would start with 120 new trainees who would have previously completed an undergraduate degree.

They would spend one year at the university and the next three embedded in rural practices, during which Davidson said many will hopefully become connected to those communities through buying a house, marrying and having children.

This is consistent with overseas research that rural people who train in rural areas using rural health professionals are more likely to practice in rural communities once they graduate.

“We are so pleased to see that the plan reflects our thinking.”

The party is also promising an extra 50 medical training positions, in addition to the 50 already announced by Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, at Auckland and Otago universities.