'Concerning trend': Study shows further decline in rural doctor numbers

A rural doctors group says new research showing a continuing decline in rural GP numbers highlights the need for urgent action.

The Royal College of GPs' general practice workforce study found a large number of unfilled vacancies and a retirement boom among rural GPs.

It also showed an increasing reliance on longer hours and short term and international GP cover to get by in rural areas.

New Zealand Rural General Practice Network CEO Dalton Kelly said there were concerning trends for general practice across New Zealand, but particularly in rural communities.

"The Minister of Health's announcement earlier this month that he supported the establishment of a network of hubs within rural communities to train the medical workforce inside our rural communities could not have come any later," he said.

"What the latest research shows us now very clearly is that we haven't got a minute to wait in addressing the structural problems with the rural health workforce. The proposed network of rural training hubs for a range of medical professionals is the key to this challenge and urgency is now the key," said Kelly.

He said the research made for grim reading.

"Additionally, we've seen a statistically significant increase from last year's numbers of GPs who are burnt out (26 percent). We can also see in the survey that rural GPs are working longer hours and taking on more emergency and after-hours work."

He said the announcement from the Government that it will move ahead with designing and establishing a network of multidisciplinary health training hubs across rural New Zealand was what was needed.

"We need this solution at scale and with the sector working cooperatively together to get this new system working as quickly and efficiently as possible. We think there is an important opportunity for New Zealand to appoint a rural health commissioner, as has recently been done in Australia, to coordinate and lead the urgent work required to start to build a sustainable rural health workforce."

Main points from the research:

•Excluding registrars, 34 percent of GPs intend to retire in the next five years and 57 percent in the next 10 years

•More than half of all GPs are over 52 years old

•36 percent of rural GPs intend to retire in the next one to five years

•39 percent of rural general practices report a current GP vacancy

•Rural respondents were twice as likely to identify as short-term employees or contractors than those in urban centres

•52 percent of rural respondents are providing medical training for others, compared with 36 per cent in urban centres

•International medical graduates now make up nearly half (46 percent) of rural GPs

•75 percent of rural GPs also provide after-hours care, significantly higher than for those in urban centres.