Doctor scarcity a healthcare risk

By Martin Johnston

Patients' access to good medical care is at risk from the crisis in New Zealand's doctor workforce, a group representing all doctors says.

The Pan-Professional Medical Forum, representing specialist colleges, doctor unions, medical students and the Medical Association, said yesterday after a conference in Wellington that the medical workforce was in a crisis because of the country's inability to train and retain enough doctors.

Shortages exist in virtually all specialties, but have been particularly highlighted in general practice, anaesthesia, psychiatry, pathology, ophthalmology and oncology. Even the ranks of junior doctors now have major gaps.

"Letting the crisis continue is not an option," said a spokesman for the forum, Christchurch surgeon Associate Professor Phil Bagshaw.

"It will burn out the remaining medical workforce and deny New Zealanders' basic rights of access to quality patient care."

In light of the ongoing shortages of doctors and nurses, health chiefs fear how the Auckland public hospitals will cope with the increase in patient numbers in winter, because they have struggled with winter-like workloads throughout summer.

Last year the Waitemata District Health Board restricted access to some of its gynaecology and emergency services because of doctor shortages.

The junior doctors' union said this week that the region was about 20 per cent short of house officers. The senior doctors' union says more than one specialist a week is leaving New Zealand for Australia, lured by the prospect of doubling their pay package.

Medical Association chairman Dr Peter Foley said pay was a big factor in New Zealand's loss of doctors, but the work environment was paramount.

"We can cope with the gap if we have a good environment. We now have a widening gap and no improvement in the environment.

"Why would you want to work in a New Zealand public hospital where doctors feel under-valued, we are over-managed, and there's variable clinical focus of that management.

"We have 10 or 11 district health boards understandably mostly obsessed with how to control their deficit rather than how to provide better services. If we had appropriately funded DHBs they could be focussing solely on patient quality, patient care. They could do that with more involvement of clinicians."

That the senior doctors' pay dispute with health boards had dragged on for nearly two years strengthened their feeling they were under-valued, he said.

Professor Bagshaw acknowledged what he said was Health Minister David Cunliffe's expressed willingness to work with medical groups on plans to train and retain more doctors. He urged the minister to convert this to a commitment to act.

Mr Cunliffe, who has intervened in the senior doctors dispute, listed many things the Government had done to boost the supply of doctors. Numbers rose by 932 to 9547 last year, he said.

"Workforce issues are a critical area for any health system and I am committed to ensuring an effective national workforce strategy is progressed rapidly."

Work to date included more student places at medical schools, extra funds to help overseas-trained doctors adjust to New Zealand hospitals, and programmes to help new nurses and midwives in their first year of practice.

- NZ Herald

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