Shortage of Rural Medical Professionals

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The biggest single issue facing remote hospitals and rural GP practices in New Zealand is the shortage of medical professionals, and this has been the case for many years. There are several contributing factors, such as funding shortfalls, decreasing rural populations and the closing of some facilities. In a few places, conversely, increased population growth has placed pressure on existing small practices.

From the top of the North to the bottom of the South, filling New Zealand’s rural medical positions remains a constant challenge.

In 2009, the first cross-sectional study on the Rural Hospital Doctor’s Workforce in New Zealand [external link: https://www.rrh.org.au/journal/article/1588] was conducted by Lawrenson R, Nixon G, Steed R, published 2011 in Rural and Remote Health. More recently, a follow-up study was conducted in May 2016 [external link: https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/read-the-journal/all-issues/2010-2019/2016/vol-129-no-1434-6-may-2016/6877] by Lawrenson R, Reid J, Nixon G, and Laurenson A, and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Unsurprisingly, the 2009 survey found that just over a third of rural medical jobs in New Zealand were found to be vacant or temporarily filled by locum placements and most hospital managers disclosed they struggled to source suitably qualified staff. While the workforce situation was found to be greatly improved in the 2016 survey, approximately 25% of hospital managers still indicated a serious or critical shortage.

Despite an increase in the overall number of medical positions available in rural hospitals, the actual number of available doctors remained similar across both surveys. The characteristics of the doctors themselves are slightly different, with many having gained extra qualifications since the 2009 study, but most remain in the 45–54-year age bracket, are male and were trained overseas.

Both studies revealed that rural New Zealand is highly dependent on an overseas-trained workforce, and retention of this international workforce depends on the appropriate organisational support. The authors were pleased to note that in 2016 many rural hospital medicine doctors were New Zealand graduates, and with an increasing proportion of women. With a younger, more diverse and New Zealand-trained workforce available to replace older doctors as they retire from practice they believe it is important rural positions remain attractive; with reasonable rostering, a female-friendly work environment that allows opportunities for part-time work, or for breaks from practice for family reasons.

The discoveries of these studies were very familiar to Luke Baddington, Ochre Recruitment’s New Zealand Team Leader. Luke and his team have been acutely aware of the need to fill doctor jobs in New Zealand in both rural hospitals and GP practices. It is a need, he says, that has barely diminished in all his years in medical recruitment, with no sign of any short-term solution in sight.

Luke points out that one of the key factors not captured in the data is the recurring pattern of extreme staffing shortages in the winter months. New Zealand doctors or locums often temporarily relocate to work in Australia’s warmer climates, while many overseas doctors who, while based here permanently, return to the northern hemisphere over NZ’s winter months. Unfortunately, their time out of the country coincidences with an increased patient demand for services, placing already stretched hospitals and GP clinics under further stress by the need to fill locum emergency medicine jobs.

Luke says, “Over the last few years, the winters have become increasingly difficult. The demand for quality medical professionals is high and it is no longer just rural communities who are struggling. We are now seeing small towns across New Zealand unable to fully meet their staffing requirements.” While in a few locations, locum doctors and nurse practitioners may partially cover some of this demand, the fact remains that as of January 2018, nearly fifty small towns with populations less than 1,500, were without a community GP.

Even though collectively resources are scarce across the sector, Ochre Recruitment New Zealand continues to place locums where they are most needed. Care, attention to detail and an individually tailored approach helps ensure that the right doctor is in the right job at the right place. However, Luke says many rural locations still yearn for a permanent GP or long-term medical professional who can provide a continuity of care and become an integral part of the community they serve.

Ochre Recruitment endeavours to support both clients and doctors over winter and have already begun planning strategies for the tricky months ahead. Maybe you are thinking about a change of scene, or know a colleague or friend looking for adventure and the chance to make a difference in a rural community. If so, then now is the perfect time to talk to Ochre Recruitment about a rural placement, as well as the travel, accommodation and competitive session rates on offer.

The author has good knowledge on medical industry in New Zealand and has written many articles on medical jobs, doctor jobs and locum emergency medicine jobs in New Zealand. To know more, visit https://www.ochrerecruitment.co.nz/

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