A new initiative is aiming to plug holes in Northland's GP network by encouraging "medical tourism" to entice doctors on working holiday in the region to work on short and long-term assignments.
A lack of GPs in Northland, an aging population, and a high number of casual patients are forcing thousands of Northlanders to wait for weeks to see their GPs and the situation is expected to get worse as the population increases.
The campaign is being launched by Mahitahi Hauora, which took over from Manaia Health and Te Tokerau PHOs in July, to help alleviate a shortage of medical personnel in Northland and meet the summer peak demand.
It's sparked a debate over getting doctors in rural areas, with one prominent Far North GP saying a more permanent solution is needed.
Projections of demand based on demographic changes show that Northland's population— already the fastest-growing in the country— is forecast to grow by 6.4 per cent by 2028.
It means GP consultations in Northland, currently at just over 500,000, will increase by 11 per cent over the next nine years.
There are currently 213 GPs in Northland who are members of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners as well as non-members, including those that have trained overseas but haven't applied for reciprocal fellowship with the college.
Mahitahi Hauora held a series of GP and medical workforce development hui in Whangārei, Kerikeri and Kaitaia in August and September to discuss initiatives aimed at addressing a shortage of GPs and other medical professions.
Chief executive Phillip Balmer said his organisation would work with Northland Inc to develop a website that promotes "medical tourism".
It would be aimed at doctors wanting a working holiday who were attracted to Northland for its lifestyle.
He said a wide-scale international recruitment campaign using social media tools and traditional approaches were ways to promote Northland as an attractive place for GPs to work in.
Balmer said initial efforts led to 11 doctors registered and working across rural practices and a new GP clinic in Kaeo, set up by Whānau Ora Community Clinic.
"Kaitaia community is also going to benefit with two extra GPs being added to services enabling new enrolments, and to boost the resources during the summer months and ongoing," Balmer said.
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Earlier this year, all three Kaitaia medical practices closed their books to new patients, saying a lack of doctors endangered staff and patients.
The decision forced Kaitaia Hospital to take over the town's overnight on-call doctor service.
Balmer said funding has been secured for a science academy and a rural immersion hub for primary care workforce to support Northlanders wanting careers as GPs along with other health roles.
"We are also working to make Northland a great place to work for existing GPs through strengthening the access for the current GP workforce, including Maori providers to the wider community team."
Those teams include nursing, mental health teams, counsellors and health coaches, he said.
Kerikeri GP Chris Reid said he was concerned the stop-gap efforts failed to address the underlying issues leaving Northland short of doctors.
"I don't think it's healthy for continuity of care. I don't think it's healthy for workforce planning and development.
"When you get backed into a corner, you think - 'what are our options'.
"I don't want to scaremonger but it's the first time I've worried there's going to be a real problem recruiting doctors to Northland. It highlights the fact we need to take a wider look."
Reid said developing communities into places people are enthusiastic about living in was important, including providing good schooling and opportunities.
He said development of health hubs with a focus on primary care - treating people in the community through ongoing relationships with local health professionals - would shift the emphasis of the health system towards early treatment and prevention.
Doing so would shift the burden and cost away from hospitals, he said.
Reid said there was early work under way on developing relationships with medical schools to create satellite hubs where doctors completing training could work while maintaining connections with tertiary support.
Whangārei MP Shane Reti - who is also a GP - said he was continuing to advocate for a third medical school with a focus on training rural doctors.
He said the current options in Auckland and Dunedin trained doctors immersed in urban life who didn't want to move to the provinces.
Figures obtained by Reti showed Northland's doctors were older than the national average by a significant margin, suggesting shortages would impact harder and sooner in the North.
More than 30 per cent of GP practices in Northland have vacancies, and GP burnout rates are the third highest in the country at 34 per cent, behind Wairarapa (44 per cent) and Whanganui (39 per cent).