Working to solve rural health worker shortage

Three Otago institutions are taking steps towards solving the critical shortage of health care workers in rural areas of New Zealand, by signing a memorandum of understanding.

Otago Polytechnic, the University of Otago and Central Otago Health Services Ltd will work together to create a "virtual centre for rural health education".

University of Otago associate dean (rural) and Dunstan Hospital rural doctor Garry Nixon said at present, there was not a department at the university which focused solely on rural health.

When undergraduate students went on rural placements, traditionally each department or programme within the university or the polytechnic dealt "quite independently and separately" with rural health services.

"At the moment, everything is scattered through a whole heap of different schools and departments ... rural health is only a small part of what they do."

The aim of the memorandum was to create one entity that would cover the medical school, pharmacy, physiotherapy, dentistry, nursing, occupational therapy and midwifery, with the sole focus of creating a constant stream of undergraduates to help fill the void in rural health.

"The problem’s huge and there’s really got to be some pretty significant changes to find solutions to that problem.

"It’s going to get worse in future years unless we find some solutions."

Central Otago Health Services Limited chief executive Kathryn de Luc said the three institutions were trying to flip the clinical education model on its head and put a sustainable system in place that would allow rural health services to recruit and retain rural staff.

"When students do placements at the moment, quite a few come out to Dunstan Hospital and do work in the community, but often they only come out for short placements, and that’s not enough.

"Generally, all the evidence indicates that if you keep people longer in placements out in the rural areas, you are more likely to keep the staff or they may come back when they finish their training."

She said the initiative also aimed to provide a career progression in rural health.

"Most of the clinical disciplines career progressions are around other aspects, like specialisms. They are not around rural, and to be rural you have to do generalist [training] because you’re doing a little bit of everything.

"So we’re wanting to flip it on its head and be able to provide that career pathway, that research element and professional leadership in the rural setting, and we believe that will help on the recruitment for staff in rural areas."

It is hoped the initiative could rolled out nationally as it evolves and develops.

It may also become a model for engagement with other rural communities.

Southern District Health Board chief executive Chris Fleming welcomed the initiative.

"This is an excellent and very promising step in this direction that draws upon the great strengths in education and rural health care in our district."


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