NZ needs more locally trained doctors - medical school professor

Nicole Bremner
Source: 1News

Aotearoa needs more locally trained doctors and should start training them now. That’s the view of the Dean of the Auckland Medical School and he’s far from alone.

Many in the health sector have told 1News they agree that locally trained doctors offer patients the benefit of wider cultural and community understanding.

Auckland Medical School professor John Fraser has asked the Government to fund an additional 44 medical school places over the next six years.

The medical school currently accepts around 256 students each year, while Otago Medical School offers 300 places.

Fraser believes there is capacity for the intakes at both universities to be the same.

“New Zealand experienced quite a massive loss of doctors in the previous decade, about 20% of our medical workforce,” Fraser said.

“Almost half of our active health workforce, and medical workforce in New Zealand, is international medical graduates.”

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New Zealand has long relied on overseas recruits whose expertise is warmly welcomed and valued here.

However, Professor Fraser said the country is well behind Australia which is now offering medical degrees at 21 universities nationwide. Australia produces around 3600 medical graduates a year as compared to only 500 in New Zealand.

“Australia’s population is five times the size of ours,” Fraser said. “But comparatively their graduates numbers are seven times the number that we’re producing.”

Concerns about shortages have also been well flagged by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. Meanwhile, the Royal College of GPs is concerned the ageing workforce will lead to chronic shortages in the next decade.

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But, a solution appears to be far from clear cut given the complex nature of doctor training and retention when the years of training are finally complete.

Health Minister Andrew Little conceded more doctors are needed, but told 1News there was pressure on capacity for graduate training places in hospitals and general practice.

Andrew Little.

“The problem we have is the ability to get them supervision for their first and second postgraduate years,” he said.

“That has been a real block to allowing more people into our medical schools.”

Little also opposed the National party’s support for a medical school with a focus on training doctors to work in rural communities – a concept already implemented in Australia.

National’s health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti argued the new investment is needed now, even though a third medical school has been unsuccessfully floated before.

“A third medical school is likely to cost around $300 million,” he said.

“But put into context, this Government is spending $486 million on health reforms - layers and layers of bureaucracy.”

Shane Reti.

Little said Health NZ, the new health authority stemming from the Government's health reforms, will be well placed to future-proof doctor numbers.

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Meanwhile, the Chief Medical Officer at Middlemore Hospital, Andrew Connelly, said there were a lot of issues to consider, including where doctors wanted to live and work, training opportunities, and maintaining a high standard of education and training.

“I think if Covid’s shown us anything,” he said, “There’s smarter ways to working in many respects... which may allow us to be more confident that we can train more doctors.”

One clear downside to the static intake numbers is that young New Zealanders are now studying medicine in Australia. Fraser is worried the budding doctors are unlikely to return and that their skills are lost to New Zealand for good.