Momentum is building behind a push for a Waikato med school with the Prime Minister saying the status quo for training doctors hasn’t always worked.
The comments from Bill English during a visit to Hamilton on Thursday are a boost to backers of a proposed Waikato medical school who aim to train GPs to meet a dire shortage felt keenest in rural areas.
English was carefully to keep his cards close to his chest but acknowledged the government was interested in the Waikato proposal.
In October, Waikato University and Waikato District Health Board announced their bid to establish the country’s third med school.
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The proposal marks a major departure from the way medical students are currently selected and trained.
The Waikato bid advocates a community-focused approach to health, taking students with an undergraduate degree and providing them with four years of practical, intensive medical education.
A focus will be on selecting students who are willing to serve high-needs, rural and provincial communities.
English said ministers Jonathan Coleman and Paul Goldsmith had requested more information on the Waikato bid but acknowledged the shortage of primary-care doctors wasn’t a new issue.
As an MP in Southland and South Otago for 24 years, English was aware of the difficulties of attracting doctors to general practices.
“In the rural areas and the provincial areas, there’s always been a need for more doctors and there’s a predominance of overseas doctors in those areas,” English said.
“My understanding is this [Waikato] proposal is intended to train more New Zealand doctors specifically for rural and provincial areas and that’s why we’re interested in it.”
New Zealand imports 1100 overseas trained doctors a year. Only one in four stay in the country for more than three years.
The proposed Waikato med school draws on successful community-engaged medical schools overseas, such as the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
The Northern Ontario med school opened in 2005 and has proved successful in training and placing doctors in rural communities.
Auckland and Otago med schools have been quick to criticise the Waikato bid, labelling it an ad hoc initiative that doesn’t do justice to the complexities surrounding medical education and training.
The New Zealand Resident Doctors’ Association and the New Zealand Medical Students’ Association have also expressed concern with the Waikato proposal.
Both unions say the health system may struggle to accommodate the increase in med students.
English said Auckland and Otago’s negative reaction to the Waikato bid was to be expected.
He declined to say whether the Government would make a call on the proposal before the September 23 election.
“I’m not surprised by Auckland and Otago coming out against it, that’s exactly what you would expect. But over time they haven’t always been able to meet all the needs of New Zealanders for appropriately trained doctors,” English said.
Waikato University professor of population health Ross Lawrenson said the Waikato proposal aimed to build capacity into the system to accommodate the extra med students.
The Waikato proposal would see clinical training bases in several hospitals and primary care clinics in the Waikato and central North Island.
The model would enable students to undertake a higher proportion of their clinical placements in communities outside the main centres.
Lawrenson said Auckland and Otago had received extra funding over the years for their programmes but hadn’t invested that into developing extra clinical placements.
“When they say there’s a shortage of clinical placements that’s because of a lack of investment. With our programme, the money will be put into developing the capacity to teach students. It’s not about building a research empire,” Lawrenson said.
Waikato University vice-chancellor Professor Neil Quigley said in other developed countries, there was diversity of types of med schools.
“They [Auckland and Otago] still haven’t answered the question why only in New Zealand would we try and make medical schools that are all things to all people instead of having different medical schools serving different needs and different populations,” Quigley said.
Waikato DHB chief executive Dr Nigel Murray said the strength of the Waikato proposal was it was a joint initiative between the health board and Waikato University.
He anticipated the school would attract staff from around the world.
“For a long time people have realised the Waikato is a fantastic place to teach and train medical students,” Murray said.
* Takes graduates from any three-year degree
* Four years of training
* Partnerships with iwi
* Aim to have 60 per cent of graduates specialising as a GP
* Placements in regional training centres around the central North Island
* Likely to have an intake of 60 New Zealand students each year
* Students selected on basis of: results, commitment to community
* Number of Maori students in cohort in line with percentage in population