Andrew Duncan, 3rd Year Nursing Student, Massey University
While many students were trying to find somewhere warm over the mid-semester break, a fellow Nursing student and I joined student health professionals from Otago University and Victoria University on a trek around Taranaki to promote health careers in rural schools.
With a severe rural General Practitioner (GP) shortage making it almost impossible to find a GP who’ll take on new patients, one waits a month to see a GP if you’re lucky enough to have one, and half of the GPs that are seeing patients are planning to retire in over next five years the often-over-used phrase “crisis” is an understatement.
It’s not just rural GPs. At one rural hospital we visited, the dentist visited once a fortnight, despite a large waiting list of people needing urgent care. Walking through an empty dental unit, all set up to see patients was eerie and demonstrated the dire need for health professionals in rural areas.
Nurses are also in short supply, with over half of the nursing roles in a rural area visited unfilled. Yet we met with more Nurse Practitioners working as GPs than we met with GPs!
Even in Wellington, none of the mental health units I’ve had a placement in have had a psychologist, and we didn’t meet with any rurally either. Midwives and Occupational therapists are in high demand as well.
The root cause of this shortage lies in the insufficient training of health professionals in New Zealand. Many New Zealand-trained healthcare professionals respond to the systemic issues by seeking better opportunities and working conditions overseas. A significant portion of my nursing cohort plan to move abroad within the next five years due to the comparative competition regarding wages and conditions in New Zealand compared to elsewhere. All these issues are especially prevalent in rural areas.
We know that health professionals who grew up rurally tend to return to rural areas. Hitting the road to promote rural health careers to secondary school students can really make a difference.
We started by standing up in front of the classes and discussing our professions, what study was like and why we need them to study a health profession. We then showed students how to take blood pressure and find their pulse. We made dental moulds and discussed the shapes and sizes of poo with playdoh. CPR was demonstrated, as well as the use of reflex hammers, and we played the “telephone game” with medical jargon to show the importance of good communication skills.
The most important thing we did was to be present and ask students to consider a health profession and then to tell them, “You’d be a great nurse”.
Our efforts received a significant boost when Seven Sharp covered our last school visit, providing us with a larger audience to spread awareness about rural health careers.
While New Zealand may struggle to compete on wages for health professionals, we can focus on improving working conditions, especially in rural areas where the quality of life is already exceptional. Expanding free staff meals to all healthcare professionals across all shifts (currently limited to doctors) would make a real difference. Increasing parking availability for staff to ensure safe commuting and requiring all health profession placements to include a rural component are critical elements in improving conditions.
Ensuring access to quality healthcare not only improves the quantity and quality of life for New Zealanders but also benefits the taxpayer by reducing healthcare costs. As a society, we consider healthcare a fundamental right, and it is imperative to transform this belief into reality by addressing the shortage of health professionals in rural New Zealand.