Mahitahi Hauora, established in July as an amalgamation of the Manaia Health and Te Tokerau PHOs, is looking to 'medical tourism,' offering medics the opportunity for working holidays, long or short-term, to make up the shortfall in Northland's general practitioner numbers.
An increasing shortage of GPs in Northland, an ageing population and a high number of casual patients are reportedly forcing thousands of Northlanders to wait for weeks to see a GP, and the situation is expected to worsen as the population increases.
Demand projections based on demographic changes indicate that Northland's population, already the fastest-growing in the country, will grow by 6.4 per cent by 2028, which would lift the number of GP consultations, currently just over 500,000 a year, by 11 per cent over the same time. The region currently has 213 GPs.
Mahitahi Hauora convened a series of GP and medical workforce development hui in Whangārei, Kerikeri and Kaitaia in August and September to discuss how the shortage of GPs and other medical professionals might be addressed. Chief executive Phillip Balmer said his organisation would work with Northland Inc to develop a website that promoted "medical tourism," aimed at doctors who would be interested in a working holiday.
Mr Balmer said Northland could be promoted via a large-scale international recruitment campaign using social media and traditional approaches. Initial efforts had seen 11 doctors register and working in rural practices, and a new GP clinic in Kaeo, established by Whānau Ora.
Kaitaia would get two more GPs, which would allow for new enrolments over the summer months "and ongoing". All Kaitaia's general practices ceased accepting new patients earlier this year.
Mr Balmer said funding had been secured for a science academy and a rural immersion hub for a primary care workforce to support Northlanders wanting careers as GPs, and 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 Māori providers, to the wider community team," he said. Those teams included nursing, mental health, counsellors and health coaches. Kerikeri GP Chris Reid said he was concerned that "stop-gap" measures would not address the underlying issues, and a more permanent solution was needed.
"I don't think it's healthy for continuity of care. I don't think it's healthy for workforce planning and development," he said.
"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. We need to take a wider look."
Dr Reid noted that work had begun to develop relationships with medical schools to create satellite hubs, where doctors completing their training could work while maintaining connections with tertiary support.
Whangārei MP (and GP) Dr Shane Reti said he was continuing to advocate for a third medical school, with a focus on training rural doctors. Those who trained in Auckland or Dunedin were immersed in urban life, and didn't want to move to the provinces.
Figures showed Northland's doctors were significantly older than the national average, suggesting shortages would impact harder and sooner in the North. More than 30 per cent of practices in Northland had vacancies, and the burn-out rate was the third-highest in the country.