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New Zealand needs a med school in Waikato to stop relying on foreign talent

University of Waikato has proposed to open a medical school to plug the gap in the country's health workforce. Pic: Facebook/@University of Waikato

The proposed medical school aims to supply the doctors needed in the country’s rural and high health needs communities, thus breaking its current chronic trend of importing foreign doctors, Stuff reports.

The New Zealand government is now considering the joint initiative by Waikato University and the Waikato District Health Board. If the plan succeeds, it can stem the international brain drain it has caused, where doctors, particularly from developing countries, are lured overseas to work instead of in their home country, where the need for them is greater.

“New Zealand has the worst medical workforce in the world because it’s got the highest number of overseas doctors practising per capita in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development),” Flinders University Professor Kevin Forsythsaid.

“New Zealand is top of the league table.”

An OECD report in 2008 highlighted concern over New Zealand’s over-dependence on foreign-trained doctors. Stuff reported the same year that the number of the country’s medical graduates was 7.9 for every 100,000 citizens, far behind the OECD average of 9.4.

The country recruits 1,100 foreign doctors each year to meet its health demands – a situation that puts it in a moral and practical predicament.

“You’ve got very poor people who are paying their taxes to support the training of these doctors so they can go back and work in these communities, but what’s happening is these doctors are going overseas to work,” Forsyth said.

Forsyth, who is associate dean of Flinders’ medical course, also works with the World Health Organisation in the area of global health workforce needs. Recounting the time he spoke to a Sri Lankan pediatrics professor about the issue of the global health brain drain, Forsyth said: “He broke down in tears”.

“New Zealand is saying thank you very much, we’ll take these doctors, but we’re not going to pay for their training, that’s your country’s burden.

“New Zealand is denying overseas populations of their health workforce so they can prop up their own. What’s that? That’s reverse aid.”

For Waikato University’s professor of population health, Ross Lawrenson,​ the issue extends beyond New Zealand’s moral standing internationally. It is better for New Zealanders to be treated by doctors who are familiar with the country’s environment and culture, according to Lawrenson.

“If these countries are training their doctors for their own environment, then they’re being plonked into working with Kiwi patients, I don’t think that’s the best outcome for Kiwis, particularly our most vulnerable communities, who are Maori, our elderly, and our mental health patients. I think it’s really important that doctors understand the environment they’re living in,” Lawrenson added.

Forsyth agrees with Lawrenson’s point that doctors with more local training would be able to influence and improve population’s health choices.

“A lot of medicine isn’t some fancy high-tech stuff, it’s actually about relating to people. I think New Zealand does need a new model. It’s certainly time to get away from two big centres training all the doctors through one paradigm.”

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