Calls to ease path for overseas-trained health workers in NZ

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

The 300 MIQ spots set aside for health care workers coming into the country will do little to fill the thousands of vacancies across New Zealand’s hospitals and other health care settings.

And as Delta continues to spread, putting pressure on the already struggling health system, there are calls to follow the likes of Germany and Britain and make better use of the hundreds of experienced foreign-trained staff that are already inside New Zealand's borders.

Lei Zel Deligero is a Filipino nurse who has a decade of experience working as an intensive care nurse in Saudi Arabia. Her skills are valuable in the care of critically-ill Covid patients.

She'd hoped to put these skills to good use here in New Zealand when she first arrived in 2013.

"The major thing [I wanted when I arrived] is to work here in the healthcare system and I want to share my experience."

But for nurses who are not trained in New Zealand, or one of a number of other countries deemed to have a similar healthcare context, the process to get registered with the Nursing Council can be complicated.

In Lei Zel's case this included scoring at least a seven out of 10 on the IELTS english test; and sitting a competency course here in New Zealand at a cost of more than $10,000.

She did pass the English test a few years back, but the certification lapsed by the time her visa was processed.

And the costs for a family-of-four living in New Zealand, working on little more than minimum wage meant the savings she'd set aside for her competency course were drained.

"The process is really frustrating. I felt like I didn't want to proceed any more," she says. "But at the back of my mind, in my heart being a nurse is my passion. I really wanted to help the healthcare system."

But the cost, while working hard to provide for her family, has seen her give up on this dream. Instead of working as a nurse, she works as a disability support worker.

Lei Zel is just one of hundreds of migrants - who are yet to get registration here - that hope to work in New Zealand's health system.

"They are crying that the healthcare system is struggling...they don't need to look further we are at the tip of their fingers," she says. "What they need to do is curl their fingers and grab us and absorb us."

Melody Opanes-Kircher is a nurse who has been advocating for her fellow migrant nurses, who have struggled for a variety of reasons to get their registration here.

"I made a post and asked how many are willing to help with this pandemic. I created a group and it's now almost 800 members."

She says in a time of crisis there must be a way to use this pool of untapped health resource that's already in the country.

"I think they can really put a review on how we can change and bring in some requirements or another assessment on how these nurses overseas can practice here safely. They can be buddied, can be assessed especially for this pandemic to help our struggling nurses."

It's something that has been done before. An article in the Eurohealth journal shows how some countries like Britain and Germany used foreign-trained health staff to ease pandemic pressures.

They did this by waiving fees for conversion exams, bringing in emergency legislation to allow foreign-trained doctors to work in support roles and in some cases speeding up the registration process.

And as data obtained by 1News shows that between 122 and 265 came in on critical health worker visas each month this year - a number that those in the health sector say is unlikely to fill the current shortfall.

The NZNO President / Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku says the union would like to see if there was a way of better utilising foreign trained staff already inside New Zealand's borders.

"We need a mechanism to fast-track the nurses that are trained internationally but are residing inside of New Zealand."

The Health Minister could not be reached for comment in time for this article. But the Ministry of Health did say it doesn't intervene in the Nursing and Medical Council's registration process.

A spokesperson adding it did have a package to support a surge of the ICU workforce... which includes covering costs for backfilling nursing staff needing additional training, and the support of online training materials.

But NZNO's Nuku says even before the pandemic there was a shortage of staff. She expects the current 3,500 shortfall will continue to grow.

"It's incredibly hard, it was before the pandemic," she says. "It was always short-staffed and we raised issues time and time again.

"It's fair to say that every day we are in this pandemic...there has been a heightened sense of anxiety in the community. Every nurse that goes to work every single day, Covid is front of mind."