District health boards are plugging a nation-wide medical skills shortfall by spending millions on hiring overseas workers to staff hospitals.
Figures gathered under the Official Information Act show last year 17 of the country’s 20 district health boards (DHBs) spent more than $4 million ($4,026,359.69) on bringing hundreds of doctors and specialists to New Zealand.
They shelled out for accommodation, flights, agency fees and other relocation fees like the cost of shipping goods, on top of worker salaries.
The biggest spender was Waikato DHB who spent nearly $1 million ($946,976) on 87 staff members to work at Hamilton and Thames hospitals including anaesthetists, haematologists, obstetricians, registrars, and neurologists.
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Southern DHB spent $503,282 on relocation expenses but declined to give a further break down.
One dental surgeon was supplemented $24,000 to relocate from Australia, including accommodation and airfares.
Auckland DHB spent $409,827 on 51 medical staff, including more than $100,000 on flights.
Lakes DHB, covering Rotorua and Taupo areas, came in fourth – spending just shy of $300,000 on 23 staff members- blowing its $200,000 annual budget.
Three DHBs declined the OIA request, citing privacy issues and substantial collation efforts.
Among the highest spend on individuals was Hawkes Bay’s $43,654, spent on an English emergency department worker, who billed $98,000 worth of flights and nearly $13,000 in relocation fees – not including accommodation.
MidCentral and Nelson Marlborough DHBs spent $71,311 relocating two psychiatrists, with half of that figure going to recruitment agency fees.
In many instances the cost of recruitment fees was higher than the actual cost of the move itself.
The figures don’t include salaries.
A recent report compiled by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) shows international workers make up 43 per cent of the specialist workforce.
It says New Zealand is increasingly reliant on overseas specialists and ASMS director Ian Powell said the country’s dependency on foreign workers showed no sign of abating.
“Overseas trained doctors do provide a rich diversity that our public health system benefits from but it is a particularly expensive and inefficient form of recruitment given our historically high dependence on them,” he said.
“The cost is more than recruitment. Compared with New Zealand trained specialists, the churn of overseas trained doctors is very high. That is, a high proportion don’t stay in their DHB position very long and leave New Zealand reasonably quickly, usually back to the country they came from.”
Waikato DHB’s people and performance director Greg Peploe said the amount it spent was just a fraction – 0.3 per cent – of staff salaries and other expenses, and considered it a “relatively small investment” in order to deliver excellent care.
“The New Zealand health system relies significantly upon overseas medical professionals to fulfil its requirement and meet the health needs of our population. In 2016, we were able to successfully attract a number of overseas specialists to come and work in the Waikato, this is to be applauded,” he said.
Extra staff had been hired to address union concerns that doctors were overworked, he said.
Lakes DHB said it spent more than usual because it needed to hire specialists, but said it preferred to hire New Zealanders where possible.
Southland DHB’s human resources manager Natalie Harper said the region was difficult to staff.
“The district does have a relatively small population and when we have difficulty recruiting for a role, we sometimes must look elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas to fill these positions,” she said.
“Southern DHB seeks to hire New Zealand trained staff first and foremost and our vacancies are always advertised within New Zealand.”