New nurses graduate from first dedicated New Zealand nursing school to open in 20 years

New Zealand's nursing crisis got a shot in the arm on Wednesday with the first-ever cohort of Waikato University's nurses graduating. 

It's the first dedicated nursing school to open in New Zealand in 20 years and was designed during the pandemic to help address the shortage in primary care, community and mental health.

Within months of starting the three year degree, students were already on placement ticking off more than the usual 1100 practical hours.

"Nursing students are being educated to match the needs of the population. The courage the University showed to establish a new school of nursing during a global pandemic, is just phenomenal" said Health NZ Te Whatu Ora Waikato Chief Nursing Officer Sue Hayward.

There are 28,200 nurses working full time across Health NZ's database but New Zealand still needs 8000 nurses by 2032 to keep up with population growth.

Waikato University Director of Nursing Cheryl Atherfold described the new programme as "responsive and agile" with a real emphasis on mental health and addiction.

"Some of these nurses are already meeting expectations from their communities. They have been sponsored and received financial support and they are going back there to rural communities," Atherfold said.

21-year-old Ben Scanlon is among the sixty graduates now registered as a nurse and working in community and mental health, primary care, Māori health or in hospitals.  

His late father was a doctor, and his mother is a nurse.

"I've been loving the adrenaline rush within urgent care and on the GP side, learning two different areas is amazing" he told Newshub from his new workplace at Tui Medical Centre in Rototuna, Hamilton.

He admits the lure of better pay in conditions offshore in countries like Australia who've run aggressive marketing campaigns, is tempting but he's not going anywhere just yet.  

"I've got to be honest it's always a temptation to go to Australia I've had classmates who want to go, others will stay but I'm really happy with the great team at Tui Medical," Scanlon said.

Dean of Health Prof Jo Lane said the new nursing programmes are a tangible expression of the University's motto: Ko Te Tangata - For the People.

"Our nursing programmes were initiated and co-developed in partnership with local health stakeholders as a direct response to the desperate shortage of nurses in our region," Prof Lane said.

Health NZ's Sue Hayward said this is one of many initiatives underway to improve recruitment and retain New Zealand nurses.

"It's up to us now to provide them with a first year of clinical practice that is so satisfying, so rewarding that they are committed to keep providing care to the population that needs their skills and knowledge."

Scanlon is under no illusions it's a workforce under pressure but said for him it's about "getting home at the end of the day knowing [he's] made an impact".