Kim Fulton is a NZME. News Service regional reporter

Rural GP shortage expected as a generation of doctors retire

Nearly half of rural GPs are expected to reach retirement age over the next decade.
Nearly half of rural GPs are expected to reach retirement age over the next decade.

Rural New Zealand is facing a GP shortage as the current workforce ages.

The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP) says rural areas will be hit with a GP shortage over the next decade, with nearly half of rural GPs intending to retire over that time.

Kerikeri GP Dr Chris Reid said a recent Northland workforce survey showed 71.7 per cent of GPs planned to leave within the next 10 years and 45 per cent within the next five.

He believed being a rural GP was enjoyable and said support and mentoring was getting better. However, GPs' partners could have trouble finding good employment in rural areas.

"We're not going to fix this problem on our own. The problem with that rural retention is about rural New Zealand full stop. It's about roads and connectivity. It's about schools and it's about the wider opportunity of jobs," he said.

"We are part of that bigger challenge about making sure rural New Zealand is an attractive place to live and work."

Dr Reid described the challenges around retention, combined with issues around the ageing workforce as "the perfect storm".

Bay of Plenty GP Dr Jo Scott-Jones said the growing and ageing population as well as worsening poverty compounded the issue.

Part of the solution was having practices reorganise themselves to be able to see more patients.

"The thing that's going to make the biggest difference is the virtual health space," he said.

The latest survey he'd seen showed 40 per cent of practices nationwide were looking for a full-time equivalent doctor.

In the very short term more overseas doctors were needed to fill urgent gaps, said Dr Scott-Jones.

"We also need to fairly rapidly look at the way that we do things so that we can actually change the way the team works and the way that patients interact with their doctors so that they can see more patients in the day."

College chief executive Helen Morgan-Banda said New Zealand didn't have enough GPs because fewer were trained in the early 1990s.

"There's a missing generation of GPs in the 35-50 age bracket and GPs are not being replaced at the same rate as GPs intend to retire over the next 10 years," she said.

The college was actively working to increase numbers of training GPs, but there was a continuing need for International Medical Graduates (IMG) to fill the gap in the workforce.

Many of those IMGs came to New Zealand 10 to 30 years ago and had been working in the same practice for many years.

Nearly 56 per cent of doctors in rural areas and more than 39 per cent in main urban areas were IMGs, said Ms Morgan-Banda.

Ms Morgan-Banda said the college took on 182 new trainee GP registrars through its General Practice Education Programme last year. They would qualify in two to three years' time.

It also had 180 complete their training and achieve fellowship of the RNZCGPs while working as GPs.

This year it hoped to be able to confirm even more trainee GPs into its education programme.

"However, to keep increasing the number of GP trainees we need our funding to increase. We also need to find ways to train more GPs through new training models," she said.

"The college has a priority to build and maintain the GP workforce in New Zealand, however the length of time to train a GP is a minimum 11 years so the training pipeline is quite long."

Meanwhile, doctors placed with hospitals also faced challenges.

More than 3000 resident doctors around the country will walk off the job for 48 hours, starting October 18. The action comes after numerous failed talks with District Health Boards over lengthy work hours and days.

Resident doctors resumed negotiations with District Health Boards today after talks were paused last week over frustrating work hours.

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