Doubts cast on doctor exodus

Three out of four junior doctors are still working in New Zealand five years after graduating, a Dominion Post investigation has found.

The figures cast doubt on claims of an unprecedented flood of doctors heading overseas to work.

The Dominion Post tracked down the 66 doctors who graduated from Otago University's Wellington School of Medicine in 2003.

Thirteen were overseas, including nine in Australia.

Four have either left New Zealand or the profession, and could not be traced.

Graduates left largely for better pay and conditions or travel, but it was family, friends and lifestyle that kept them in New Zealand or lured them back.

Pay negotiations between district health boards and 2400 junior doctors remain deadlocked. The doctors' union has argued for better pay, partly to stem the perceived exodus.

But The Dominion Post's findings are consistent with Medical Council graduate retention figures for the past 10 years, suggesting there has been no surge in junior doctors leaving.

District health boards spokesman David Meates said there was no evidence of an unprecedented exodus of young doctors.

However, growing patient numbers and the complexity of conditions meant demand for junior doctors was increasingly outstripping supply.

The number of vacant junior doctor positions has doubled in four years, to 8 per cent.

Resident Doctors Association national secretary Deborah Powell was not surprised by the findings, as the class of 2003 graduated before the "locum whirlpool" took hold in 2004-05, she said.

She predicted they would go to Australia after qualifying as senior doctors.

Of the 20 doctors who replied to questions in detail, 12 expected to be in New Zealand in five years, three saw themselves in Australia, one was undecided and four said they would be either in New Zealand or Australia, depending on working conditions.

An emergency medicine trainee said that, at graduation, the thought of leaving had not occurred to him. But he now planned to move to Australia for about three years, to earn $90 to $120 an hour as a locum, compared with $27 to $29 here for his permanent job.

Even in permanent work, he would expect to earn 40 per cent to 50 per cent more overseas.

"The mechanics of moving are no more difficult than moving to Auckland. I consider myself unusual in that I've stayed so long."

The higher pay and better conditions for locums were a common source of frustration. But many doctors angry at the disparity had themselves worked as locums before starting specialist training.

A North Island doctor worked as a locum in Australia for "extravagant amounts of money".

However, she returned to New Zealand to train as a surgeon and expected to stay, unless more family members went to Australia.

She earns $30 an hour. "My brother gets paid A$25 (NZ$31) an hour to make coffees. Go figure."

Another doctor, who has worked as a locum in Australia, said better rosters, leave for important events, and the same pay and flexibility as locums would help to retain junior doctors.


The Dominion Post