'A looming crisis': GPs desperately needed in rural New Zealand

There are currently around 500 GPs working in rural parts of the country.
There are currently around 500 GPs working in rural parts of the country. Photo credit: Getty

With around half the country's rural GPs set to retire over the coming years, there is a desperate need for more doctors to be trained up and ready to go in remote parts of New Zealand.

Grant Davidson, chief executive of New Zealand Rural General Practice Network, says while there is no "quick fix" to the ailing rural healthcare system, action needs to be taken now before things get worse.

With hundreds of positions needing to be filled throughout the country, locums or overseas-trained doctors are often needed to fill gaps for short periods of time to make ends meet, he says. And that situation is only going to get worse.

"There's about 500 rural GPs out there at the moment... and most of them are over 50," Davidson told Magic Talk's Rural Exchange over the weekend.

"We look at the retirement ambitions and over 50 percent are going to retire in the next five to 10 years so there is a looming crisis. 

"We need 200-400 new GPS trained and ready to go in the next few years to cut this off at the pass - it's a big issue."

Last month, the Government's Health and Disability System Review found the country's health system to be under "serious stress" and gave a series of recommendations to overhaul it all.

Davidson said while he welcomed the report's findings that access to healthcare for rural communities was "unacceptable", those living in remote parts of the country have long known that.

"It's time to do something about it. The Government's now got the report, it's time to act. So we want to see some action and not just words," Davidson told Rural Exchange.

Last week the rural maternity sector received a $242 million boost to help it get up to speed, but Davidson said much more is needed.

"A lot of these things won't be quick fixes, in terms of a rural health workforce that is trained and wanting to work in rural areas - that's a long-term fix.

"But the first thing they need to do there is actually develop a training system that is fit for purpose rurally, that it's based rurally, trained rurally and those people stay in those rural areas." 

One thing he said that could be addressed immediately was fixing pay inequality between rural GPs and nurses and those working in the urban centres.

"These things can be fixed with funding going to the right places," Davidson said.

He also said the country's network of rural hospitals was critical for those living in remote communities.

"You need to have that support from your family and whānau, so if you can be treated wherever possible in your local area or not far away it really increases access to health services and to whānau and family being able to support you while you're getting those services. So that network of 30 to 40 rural hospitals around the country is vital."

Another key part in rural healthcare is ambulance services.

However with St John last month announcing it faces a $30 million financial hole and would be cutting 100 jobs, there are concerns over the impact that will have on rural communities.

James Stewart, St John's national operations manager, says many staff who serve rural communities are volunteers.

"St John is incredibly crucial to New Zealand, especially in the rural and remote areas where our ambulance officers - many of whom are volunteers - are lifesavers," Stewart told Rural Exchange.

"They have a huge impact on their communities. Our frontline ambulance officers are in the privileged position of going to people's homes and being by their side at some of their worst moments." 

Because it can often be difficult for ambulances to arrive from further away, rural volunteers are often crucial in times of need, he said.

"Rural and remote communities have a special community ethos - we all pitch in and help your neighbour because assistance from paid crews' help will be some time away."