'Virtual campus' suggested to ease rural doctor shortage

A "virtual campus" has been put forward as an idea to help address the shortage of doctors in rural areas.

In an article in the latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, stakeholders from the University of Otago, University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology (AUT) outlined details about their proposal for a 'National Interprofessional School of Rural Health'.

It would create a community of rural health academics, dispersed across rural New Zealand and brought together on the "virtual campus". 

Rural healthcare professionals would combine academic roles with active rural clinical practice.

Dr Garry Nixon, Associate Dean Rural at the University of Otago, said sharing human, physical and other resources would mean these institutions could educate students and undertake research in rural communities in ways currently not possible.

"It would create a community of health professional teachers and researchers in rural areas," he said.

Rural health advocates say a 'virtual campus' would have big benefits for rural communities.
Rural health advocates say a 'virtual campus' would have big benefits for rural communities. Photo credit: File

"A National Interprofessional School of Rural Health would be a significant investment in the social fabric, institution and economics of small town New Zealand," said Dr Nixon.

It's proposed that the activities of the school would be based around nodes located in rural towns and integrated with local health services. 

Dr Nixon said currently, rural communities have multiple points of contact with different professional health education and training programmes run by different tertiary institutions and colleges.

One central aim of the initiative is to ensure students experience the realities of health delivery in rural communities by spending a significant time in rural areas. 

They would receive their training from people who are living and working there - not only doctors, but also nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists and mental health staff.

Professor Warwick Bagg, who heads the Medical Programme at the University of Auckland, said the long-term vision is to create a culture of rural academic development and presence.

"Based on overseas evidence, we know this is likely to encourage many more health professionals to live and work in rural areas," he said.

He believes the proposed school, which is based on successful Australian models that have been adapted to the New Zealand context, would help address health inequities in rural areas for all populations.