Young white male doctors, once the bastion of the medical establishment, are now in such short supply that medical schools are considering using quotas to attract them.
"Affirmative action for white male medical students is not a debate we're just having, it's a debate every medical school is having," says Auckland University faculty of medicine dean Professor Iain Martin.
New Zealand has long had a policy of affirmative action to encourage Maori and Pacific Islanders into medicine, but a 3 per cent decline in Pakeha males entering medicine since 2000 as well as feminisation of the workforce has led medical schools to ask how they can encourage more white males to become doctors.
Foreign doctors now make up 40 per cent of the medical workforce because there are too few New Zealand-born-and-trained doctors available. More than 1400 international medical graduates register here each year compared with only about 300 trained in New Zealand.
Kiwi doctors are haemorrhaging from our health system 30 per cent leave within five years of graduating and more than 80% of the doctors newly registered here each year are trained overseas.
The chronic doctor shortage is exacerbated by the increasing numbers of women in the medical workforce. Women make up 55 per cent of medical school classes but they work fewer hours over their careers, largely because of child-raising.
Doctors attribute the decline of the white male doctor to girls doing better educationally than boys, girls being more mature when they start university and therefore likely to score higher in aptitude tests, boys being more attracted to other professions like information technology and engineering partly due to salaries and the desire for a better work/life balance.
Medicine is relatively poorly paid compared to many other professions, reflected in Friday's announcement that senior doctors will take industrial action next year.
Martin says people argue the medical workforce should mirror the local population.
"Effectively, that would mean setting up quotas for a range of groups that people consider important... What I say to people is `Would you be prepared to advocate an affirmative action programme for rural white males from around New Zealand?"'
Martin said Leeds University medical school, where he studied, used to have 75 per cent males. It is now 40%.
But women doctors work fewer hours those in their 20s work an average of 53-56 hours a week but this drops to 35.6 hours in the 35-44 age bracket.
Professor Don Roberton, head of Otago Medical School, said he would be reluctant to lintroduce affirmative action for men and says it's more important that doctors can cater to all patients' cultural needs rather than their particular ethnicity. He said there would also be a difficulty in identifying the white Anglo-Saxon Kiwi males, given our multicultural society.
Medical Council chairman Professor John Campbell said more needed to be done to attract men into medicine.
"Medicine may not seem an attractive career for many young men but I think it's tremendous as a career. I think we have to make sure that message gets across."
However, Campbell said a quota was unlikely to be the answer.
Medical Association chairman Dr Peter Foley said younger doctors wanted to work fewer hours than their predecessors, meaning two graduates effectively did the work of 1.5 doctors.
- Sunday Star Times