Rural health commissioner needed to address healthcare 'crisis'

A rural health group says urgent action is needed.
A rural health group says urgent action is needed. Photo credit: Getty

Growing concern about the state of healthcare in rural areas has prompted renewed calls for the establishment of a rural health commissioner.

The Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ) is meeting in Wellington for the organisation's 4th RuralFest.

The annual day-long event discusses and formalises a policy 'wish-list' to take to parliament on Thursday for a series of unique, high-access meetings with the Health Minister and MP's from other political parties.  

The group, which represents around 30 of the country's leading rural health, business and agricultural organisations, said frustration over chronic workforce shortages, poorer health outcomes and unequal access to healthcare was mounting.

RHAANZ council member and GP Dr Chris Henry said a fresh call for New Zealand's first-ever stand-alone rural health commissioner was likely to be one pressing government 'call to action' from RHAANZ members.

"It's time the health of 600 thousand New Zealanders, our country's second largest city, was given far more equity" he said.

"I'm looking forward to asking RHAANZ members to take a sector-wide view of the need for a rural health commissioner, to advocate for the health rights of all rural New Zealanders".

Dr Henry said many of the proposed solutions had been discussed but not necessarily heard, and progress was too slow.

"The constant headlines tell the story, whether it be inequitable access to diagnostic tests and surgery, closures of rural maternity services or alarming rates of suicide and mental health sparked by isolation, fatigue, burn-out and stress. 

"There's a sense that while government understands the issues, it hasn't quite grasped the urgency of the situation".

The Government last year announced a series of initiatives aimed at improving the supply of doctors, nurses and midwives working in rural New Zealand.

"It's widely known and accepted that we face challenges attracting and retaining health professionals in some of our smaller communities," said Health Minister, David Clark at the time.

"We need to make our rural health workforce more sustainable," he said.

Initiatives announced to address the rural health worker shortage included:

- Changing the training funding mix so that a greater proportion of GP training places go to rural trainees

- Putting greater investment in professional development for rural primary health care nurses and midwives 

- Extending rural inter-professional education programmes 

- Improving the use of technology for professional rural support

Minister for Rural Communities Damien O'Connor welcomed the measures in 2018, saying at the time that a strong health workforce was vital for the wellbeing of rural communities.

"Rural New Zealand needs to know that health services will be there when they need them," he said.