Hundreds of GPs write 'digital postcards' to minister, warning of primary health crisis
Doctors fear a shortage in GPs is likely to get worse, and have written to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman in their hundreds to spell out the extent of the looming crisis.
A total of 350 doctors have written to Coleman with tales of how a day when they get time for a toilet break is considered a good day, and how they have to give free treatment to patients who can't afford doctors' fees.
One GP in Hamilton said former patients who had moved to rural areas were calling up in tears because could not find a GP who would see them, while another in Northland said doctors were struggling with an increasing unpaid workload, and falling incomes.
The stories are told in "digital postcards" to be delivered to Coleman later this month.
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Tim Malloy, president of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP), said he was surprised by the response.
"I knew the sentiment was out there, because people had spoken to me directly. What I did not realise was the extent of it."
That doctors had taken the time out of their busy days to write to the minister reflected the level of passion the problem had generated within the workforce.
There were "pockets" of the country where it was getting very hard to get to see a GP. Patea, in south Taranaki, had been without a local doctor since early July.
"I don't think we're at that critical point yet, where I could hand on heart say patients' safety is an issue ... but that's the risk we're trying to manage, that's why we're trying to do something about it before we get to that point."
The Government needed to look at the way it distributed funding to ensure those most at need were able to afford to see a doctor. It also needed to address a looming workforce shortage, he said.
Coleman agreed the tool in place to provide cheaper visits for people who needed them was blunt.
"I've had officials working on a more individualised and more targeted approach for some months now."
Malloy acknowledged different governments had tried to help with the shortage, but it took at least 15 years to turn a first-year medical student into a skilled and capable GP.
Currently 180 students trained each year to become GPs, but that number needed to be 300, he said.
Wellington GP Rachael Waters said her main concern was the ageing workforce. Most of the GPs in her Churton Park practice where in their 40s and 50s, and representative of the workforce nationwide.
"Clearly most of us are going to be gone in 15 years. I don't know who's going to be there ... it's extremely concerning, I don't know who's going to be looking after everybody."
There needed to be drastic, rapid change, if the "huge gap" in the workforce was going to be filled in time. She feared medical students would prefer to specialise in areas that had better pay than general practice, to help pay off their student loans.
Ministry of Health group manager people and transformation Claire Austin said the ministry had been working with the college, and had increased the number of funded GP trainees from 50 a year in the early 2000s to 185.
There was a Medical Workforce Pipeline programme in place to ensure a sustainable medical workforce, which helped trainee doctors make informed decisions when choosing specialties.
The Government had a number of initiatives to improve the distribution of the workforce in rural areas.