By Jared McCulloch
The declining number of rural doctors has prompted a new initiative in Central Otago.
Tertiary education providers and health services are teaming up in a bid to attract young GPs and other health workers to the region and keep them there.
Sarah Walker chose to start her physiotherapy career at Dunstan Hospital near Alexandra.
“I love working in rural health because I really like how it is all about the people and it is all about the community," she said.
But persuading other new professionals to work in the regions is not easy, Ms Walker says.
“Rural health isn't really discussed as a career at all.”
The difficulty attracting staff is becoming a constant struggle for rural health service providers across the country, Kathryn de Luc from Central Otago Health Services says.
“At the moment, for example, we have a seven to eight per cent vacancy rate.
“We have tried repeatedly over months - and in some cases years - to fill posts.”
The issue is being described as a “chronic crisis.”
Associate Professor Garry Nixon from the University of Otago specialises in rural health and said “if you look around nationally at the moment - it is as bad as it ever has been in rural areas.”
The outlook is grim with figures from the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network showing more than a third of rural GPs will retire in the next five years.
Close to 60 per cent will be gone in a decade and more than half of existing staff are over the age of 52.
“If you have someone retire or leave, then one person leaving out of a team of three, you've lost your workforce by a third,” Ms de Luc said.
Now Otago tertiary institutions and Central Otago health services have pledged to work together to make rural medicine a priority and extend placements.
“There is strong evidence that if students are embedded in the rural community for a long period of time, they will stay, but they need to study there for at least a year” Mr Nixon said.
The Ministry of Health says it is working with the rural health sector to develop a plan, including using technology for training, and possibly creating rural learning hubs.