University sends medical students to rural NZ to help relieve doctor shortages

South Taranaki has just 26.9 full-time equivalent GPs per 100,000 people.  The national average is 69.8.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

South Taranaki has just 26.9 full-time equivalent GPs per 100,000 people. The national average is 69.8.

The University of Auckland will double the number of medical students it sends to Taranaki in the hope it alleviates a severe shortage of rural GPs.

The university has 16 sixth-year students completing year-long placements at Taranaki Base Hospital.

Numbers will double next year when fifth-year students begin placements in Taranaki for the first time. Fifth-year placements will include time at Hawera Hospital.

Taranaki has the lowest GP to patient ratios in the country and rural areas face the biggest shortage.   

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In South Taranaki there are 26.9 full-time equivalent GPs, based on a 40-hour working week, per 100,000 people, 43.2 for the Stratford district and 67.6 for the New Plymouth district. The national average is 69.8.

The University of Auckland is set to double the number of medical students it sends to Taranaki.
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The University of Auckland is set to double the number of medical students it sends to Taranaki.

With at least half of all GPs expected to retire in the next 10 years, Taranaki's medical position look set to get worse.

However, more Auckland university medical students would spend a year in regional communities and the next step was to increase student placements into rural GP practices, the university's medical programme leader Professor Warwick Bagg said.

"The university is significantly expanding its infrastructure and staffing in regional hospitals, which will make it easier for students to spend time in smaller towns," he said.

"We know that training our future doctors for longitudinal periods in rural practices and small rural hospitals will enhance the likelihood of graduates choosing to work in those areas so we have placed a high priority on this."

A record 256 medical students are completing year-long study placements this year in regional hospitals, including 16 of them in Taranaki.  

Next year more than 280 students will be placed in a regional District Health Board in the northern half of the North Island. Nearly all Auckland university medical students spend part of their time in a regional or rural general practice.

Taranaki Clinical School head, Dr John Doran, said students who completed regional and rural placements became very familiar with a local community.

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"They become part of a community's health team increasing their awareness of the benefits and challenges for their patients, while opening them up to the opportunities of living and working in provincial New Zealand long term," he said.

The biggest challenge facing the expansion of rural placements was finding GPs who had the physical space and availability to supervise students.

"The University of Auckland is doing more regional hospital placements combined with short term rural placements than ever before," Bagg said.

"We are ideally placed to expand this to more rural GPs and in turn, increase the numbers of highly trained medical graduates with the desire to work in regional and rural New Zealand."

Auckland university students at regional hospitals are supervised by doctors who are also academic members of staff. They are supplied with IT infrastructure and video conferencing facilities to remain connected with university departments.

Most of the university's investment in medical staffing has been outside of Auckland over the last five to eight years, and significant expansion has occurred in its clinical sites in Whangarei, Tauranga, Rotorua and Taranaki, and its rural training hubs in Whakatane and Northland.

 - Stuff

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