Why NZ’s third medical school would be a waste of money

14 May 2017
Head and torso portrait of Stuart McCutcheon

Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland Stuart McCutcheon makes a case against the proposed new medical school in Hamilton.

A third medical school in New Zealand, once advocated for Wellington and now proposed for Hamilton, would be a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Claims that it is needed because existing medical schools have failed to meet a shortage of doctors, particularly GPs in the regions and rural areas, are incorrect and misleading.

The country’s two existing medical schools, at the Universities of Auckland and Otago, are already responding to a Government programme to increase medical graduate numbers to levels agreed by the health sector. By 2020 the programme will reach its full cohort of 570 medical graduates each year, 200 more than in 2008.

However this increase in medical graduate numbers would be threatened by the proposal to create a third school in an alliance between the University of Waikato and the local District Health Board.

The CEO of the Waikato District Health Board has already written to our Dean of Medicine advising that, if the proposal goes ahead, the number of clinical places available to Auckland graduates will fall by at least 96 students each year. Our students who currently go to Waikato Hospital for clinical placements will need to be relocated. But the reality is that no alternative exists to relocate these students because there is already a shortage of clinical placements across the country.

In simple terms, the proposal would replace students from the Auckland programme with those from Waikato and would not lead to the net gain in medical graduates that is claimed.

The proposed new medical school would be a waste of money because it makes much more sense to use existing resources than to invest additional resources in a whole new medical school.

We already have several hundred million dollars invested in facilities to train doctors and we have taken on the additional students at no added capital cost to the taxpayer. The scale of investment required to establish and operate an accredited medical programme is huge and it makes no sense to duplicate this investment, or a substantial part of it, elsewhere.

In addition, significant taxpayer investment would be needed to raise the quality of Waikato’s academic programmes to the standard required for a medical school. All but one of the medically-related subjects at Auckland and Otago are ranked among the top 150 universities in the world, and in some subjects considerably higher. Other New Zealand universities have some of these subjects ranked in the top 300-500, but the University of Waikato has none. Attracting internationally sought-after academics to a new school would add significantly to the cost

And although the Waikato programme would cost the Government the same in funding per student, it is a graduate degree therefore it would take longer. Students would complete a three- or four-year undergraduate degree before beginning the four-year medical degree. This would mean total study time would be at least seven years, a year longer than the programmes at Auckland and Otago, and students’ own costs would be higher.

I acknowledge that New Zealand continues to import doctors, but this reflects the lag between increased intake into the existing medical programmes and the availability of qualified doctors. It also reflects the shortage of doctors willing to serve in the rural and regional areas.

However, it must be noted three quarters of these overseas doctors stay less than two years – they are here primarily for work experience – and our dependency on overseas-trained doctors will fall as numbers of domestically-trained doctors rise.

With regard to attracting doctors to other locations, both Auckland and Otago medical schools have extensive programmes to encourage graduates to practice in rural and regional areas nationwide. Given that this is an issue for New Zealand – not the number of medical graduates but rather where they practice – setting up a new medical programme, especially a postgraduate programme, would be an extremely expensive way of addressing it.

So if the Government, which prides itself on being fiscally responsible, wants to increase the number of doctors practising in rural and regional locations, it must work with existing medical schools to improve the likelihood of our current graduates choosing to work in those areas. This would achieve the desired result more quickly because we are already producing the graduates, and it would be a much more efficient use of taxpayer money.


Professor Stuart McCutcheon is Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland

Used with permission from NewsroomWhy NZ’s third medical school would be a waste of money published on Sunday 14 May 2017.