Government funding set to boost rural doctor workforce

The number of medical students spending a full year working in a rural or regional community is set to swell, thanks to funding from Te Whatu Ora.

Medical students grouped around a helicopter in a rural area.
Medical students learn about all aspects of rural medicine on placements.

More than 35 trainee doctors will be able to spend a year working in rural communities in 2024, thanks to a funding boost from Te Whatu Ora aimed at tackling the shortage of rural doctors.

The funding will pay for ten extra students from Otago Medical School, on top of the 25 it currently puts through its rural medical immersion programme and and establishing a programme at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

Otago Medical School will add two new sites in Wairoa and Alexandra to its current offering in Queenstown, Ashburton and the West Coast. See Rural Medical Immersion Programme.

“The rural medical immersion programme was established at Otago University in 2007 and is an internationally proven model,” says Professor Garry Nixon, Associate Dean Rural Health at the University of Otago.

“The University’s figures suggest that rural medical immersion programme graduates are about five times more likely to become rural doctors than the rest of their medical class,” Dr Nixon says.

Auckland’s medical faculty is planning to establish programme sites in the central and upper North Island. This comes on top of a range of initiatives to encourage medical students to work in country areas, such as the regional rural admissions scheme.

“We are delighted that Te Whatu Ora and Te Aka Whai Ora have prioritised rural healthcare education to meet the rural healthcare workforce shortage, which will ultimately provide better health outcomes for those who live rurally in Aotearoa,” says Professor John Fraser, Dean of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Te Whatu Ora says it is pleased to fund these additional places in Rural Medical Immersion Programmes.

“Scaling training initiatives to grow our future workforce – particularly in rural areas - is one of the many key actions we’re taking as part of our Health Workforce Plan. These extra placements are a welcome and important step to achieving better health access for our rural communities,” Te Whatu Ora John Snook, Director Workforce Development and Planning.

Rural Medical Immersion Programme students will split their time between rural general practices and hospitals and be mentored by community health providers and visiting specialists.

They live together in the rural town they are assigned to and will be encouraged to become part of the community.

Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network has worked with the universities in advocating for expansion of rural training to support the well-being of people living rurally.

“This is a keystone programme for building a sustainable health work force in our rural communities, Dr Grant Davidson, Chief Executive Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network says.

“With a rural health workforce reporting burn-out, coupled with a large percentage of the workforce retiring in the next ten years, it is with urgency that students have the opportunity to train for a rural placement.” 

Both universities already offer a suite of programmes for students with an interest in rural medicine, including rural admission schemes and placements throughout their training.

The universities are working towards a nationally joined-up approach to rural training.

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