Auckland and Otago medical school heads began a covert campaign against a proposed Waikato med school three months before it was revealed to the public.
In October, Waikato University and the Waikato District Health Board announced a bid to establish the country’s third medical school.
The move triggered a sharp rebuttal from Auckland and Otago, who slammed the bid as ill-conceived and unwarranted.
But new documents released in response to an Official Information Act request by Stuff show the two established med schools began poisoning the ear of government ministers as early as July.
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In a July 26 letter, sent to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and then Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce, Otago and Auckland express major reservations about the Waikato proposal, labelling it an “ad hoc initiative”.
The letter was included in a document dump on Auckland University’s website.
The heads of Auckland and Otago med schools acknowledge the need for a third medical school in the future but say the Waikato proposal doesn’t do justice to the complexities surrounding medical education and training.
The schools also express disappointment the Waikato backers didn’t discuss their bid prior to talking to the Government.
In a briefing paper sent to the government ministers in December, Auckland and Otago step up the pressure, saying the Waikato proposal lacks support from mid-North Island DHBs – a claim rejected by the Waikato backers.
“An ad hoc proposal aimed primarily at developing the reputation of an individual university and region but which lacks the support of most, if not all, key health authorities and organisations in New Zealand has a high risk of failing,” the briefing paper states.
In reply, Waikato DHB chief executive Dr Nigel Murray said he had discussed the med school proposal with the other four Midland health boards.
None had spoken against it, he said.
“In our regional meetings we’ve talked about the challenges we face in making general practice viable into the future,” Murray said.
“I can’t speak for another DHB, but none of the other boards have objected to what we have proposed.”
In April, the Waikato Mayoral Forum unanimously endorsed the proposal and called on the Government to support it with urgency.
Local government leaders in Bay of Plenty and Gisborne have also backed the Waikato bid.
Murray said it was disappointing Auckland and Otago had tried to portray the Waikato proposal as a trophy project.
“This isn’t about the universities and their incomes and research incomes, this is about making sure the population of New Zealand in the provincial and rural settings have access to health care,” Murray said.
“Auckland and Otago produce wonderful doctors but not enough are becoming GPs or going to work in rural communities. We have a solution that we strongly believe will help fix that.”
The Waikato proposal aims to steer more graduates towards becoming primary-care doctors.
Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley said Otago and Auckland’s assertion the Waikato bid was ad hoc was incorrect.
Quigley also rejected claims Waikato University lacked expertise in the relevant disciplines for health sciences.
“We spent a year working on the proposal and did a large amount of analysis on health workforce needs in the process,” Quigley said.
“This proposal is driven by the needs of the community and the gaps we have in the health workforce. For Otago and Auckland to say that we don’t need to train more doctors is so inconsistent with the evidence on the number of international doctors that we import every year. It’s hard to imagine they can go on saying that and keep a straight face, frankly.”
Auckland and Otago graduated 455 new doctors in 2015. New Zealand brings in 1100 overseas- trained doctors each year.
Waikato University professor of population health Ross Lawrenson said the idea of a graduate entry programme had been discussed for the past decade but Auckland had decided against pursuing it.
The Waikato proposal aims to address key areas of workforce shortage and the needs of disadvantaged, rural and provincial communities.
“This is not just a rural medical school or a rural GP medical school. We have high needs communities in Hamilton which this proposal would address,” Lawrenson said.
“There are also high needs populations like mental health and we are aiming to address that within our proposal.”
In March, Stuff filed a revised Official Information Act request for all emails generated by Auckland University medical programme head Professor Warwick Bagg discussing the Waikato med school proposal.
Auckland University has refused to release the emails unless it’s paid $570.