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The University of Otago yesterday announced it would punish more than 50 trainee interns for using their three-month overseas hospital placement to instead go on holiday.
But three former students - who spoke to RNZ anonymously - said the culprits were being scapegoated for a long-running and culturally-accepted practice. All three did their compulsory placement in 2015 in various countries.
One said he knocked off three weeks early to go travelling, another said he only worked mornings for the entire duration of his stint and the third said he spent seven of the 12 weeks on holiday.
"It was very widespread," one GP said. "I'd say it was culturally normative, to the point where ... senior doctors would joke with you about how you're gonna be on holiday."
Another GP told RNZ he believed the practice went back decades.
"My family GP, he went to Malta and that was almost 35 years ago. He said he spent the whole time on the beach, you know, relaxing and travelling Europe in a van.
"If you asked the majority of the faculty who are doctors 'what did they do on their elective?' - I think that would open up another can of worms."
He said the university's response had been "a knee jerk reaction to try save face".
"There's no way they didn't know this was happening."
None of the three doctors were apologetic for their actions. They said the travel abroad taught them life lessons which were of more value than observing doctors speaking different languages and using outdated practices.
They acknowledged they received some government funding while abroad - about $500 a week - but pointed out their massive student debt and intensive study load.
The University of Otago has initiated a broad inquiry into the extent of the misconduct which may look at back at previous years.
Speaking to media yesterday, Otago Medical School Dean Professor Barry Taylor acknowledged the situation was "widespread" and not likely to be isolated to the university or this year's students.
"The university acknowledges that its systems relating to the elective placements have allowed for the dishonesty to occur," he said.
"It is reviewing the programme and will ensure that it contains far greater checks and balances to reduce as far as possible the opportunity for any case like this to recur.
"Some immediate measures have already been put in place to decrease chances of this occurring again, such as blacklisting some locations, increased reporting requirements, and mid-placement checks with student supervisors."
The 53 offending students would have to write a self-reflective essay, pay back at least part of the grant and would not be allowed to attend graduation with the rest of their class in December.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins told reporters he had been keeping an eye on the unfolding scandal and would pass judgement once all the facts were clear.