Health workforce moves no quick fix

Anyone hoping for instant results from the Government’s announcement this week about its $14 million package for boosting the health workforce will be disappointed.

The problem has been too long in the making and, while we might want a silver bullet solution, that is not realistic.

The measures proposed include financial support for overseas nurses towards their registration costs and covering international doctors’ salaries for six-week clinical induction courses and three-month training internships.

Having dedicated immigration support services for health workers is also planned, although the Government has stubbornly refused to give overseas nurses automatic residency, making them wait two years to qualify for that.

Much has been written about the need for more overseas doctors and nurses here but, in the face of a global health workforce shortage, this may be harder than it appears at first glance.

Health Minister Andrew Little is upbeat about that, saying 7000 overseas health workers, including 3200 nurses, have registered interest in coming here.

From time to time, we hear rumblings about patch protection when overseas medical professionals with good qualifications and skills may find it difficult to get recognition here.

However, it is important that in our desperation to boost the workforce nobody looks the other way if candidates are not quite up to the standard we would expect of our homegrown personnel. Patient safety cannot be compromised.

There is also the issue of organising adequate support and supervision from colleagues for new recruits from overseas.

Will overworked existing staff welcome extra responsibility in this area?

The new health authority will need to ensure those already in the system do not feel undervalued and resentful that newcomers may be getting a better deal than they are.

There has already been criticism that incentives offered to doctors coming here exceed those for nurses.

More is planned to increase the number of New Zealanders in the workforce, including expanding a programme to help nurses who may have left the profession to return to work, increasing the number of general practitioners and nurse practitioners being trained, and the training places for radiology registrars.

The moves have generally been welcomed as steps in the right direction, but there is also criticism more could be done to increase recruitment and retention domestically.

Will the drive do anything, for instance, to bring GPs to rural areas and encourage them to stay there, or to entice nurses or carers to the aged-care sector?

It would be good to see consideration of free training for student nurses and paid work placements as promoted by New Zealand Nurses Organisation president Anne Daniels.

Could more use be made of nursing students in the current staffing crisis? The recent controversy over the poor process followed in the hasty calling in of student nurses to assist at Dunedin Hospital has drawn attention to the possibility that their properly organised employment could be beneficial to students, patients and over-worked staff.

The plan to use a storyline in the television soap opera Shortland Street as part of the Government’s nursing recruitment drive seems ill-considered and has not gone down well with the profession.

Nursing academic and executive director of the College of Nurses Aotearoa Prof Jenny Carryer described it as offensive and pointless.

Nurses on the show spent their lives ‘‘bitching and moaning and fighting about their relationships and doing evil things to each other’’ rather than actual nursing, she told NZ Doctor.

The Government’s coyness about spending on this, on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, is not a good look either.

Oddly enough, the soap’s most famous line, ‘‘You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata’’, was a rebuke delivered in the first episode by the nursing director before the doctor, just returned from Central America, and not yet on the pay roll, dramatically overrode the rules to deliver a baby.

We doubt the recruiting storyline will be able to match it.

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