DHB’s Head For Britain To Find Doctors

DHBs head for Britain to find doctors

5:00AM Thursday June 28, 2007
By Martin Johnston
The New Zealand Herald

Health boards are planning to raid British hospitals for medical staff after reaching “tipping point” in the local shortage of permanent junior doctors.

Seventeen of the 21 district health boards have joined the scheme to lure about 160 junior doctors and 40 GPs here – British-trained doctors and New Zealanders overseas.

The recruitment agency, Geneva Health, plays up New Zealand's “rugged coastlines”, ski fields and “sipping fine wine in a local vineyard” in its website's pitch to attract doctors.

Recruiters leave for Britain next week to capitalise on what a leaked report calls a “window of opportunity”, after training changes there have left many junior doctors potentially unemployed.

The report, written for the association of DHBs and made public by National's health spokesman, Tony Ryall, says the Medical Council and Immigration Service are willing to assist with a “co-ordinated approach” to registration and immigration requirements.

It says Auckland public hospitals had vacancy rates of 18-23 per cent for house officers – mainly junior doctors in their early post-graduate years – in May.

“Predictions for fourth-quarter vacancies approach 40 per cent to 50 per cent and these numbers are mirrored in some hospitals throughout New Zealand.”

Most of the shortage was because hospitals had increased junior doctor positions nationally by 14 per cent since 2002 and 24 per cent in Auckland, while the number of doctors available had declined slightly. The rate of junior doctors going overseas was stable.

Vacancy rates had risen by about 2 per cent to 4 per cent a year.

“This winter, a 'tipping point' appears to have been reached, in which a large number of house officers have elected not to continue in full-time employment, opting instead for temporary flexible locum arrangements although as yet no firm workforce data exists to support this assertion.”

This costs health boards collectively $7.5 million to $9 million a year. For some locum shifts, trainee specialists have been paid up to $160 an hour, more than double the usual registrar locum rate.

Health boards' spokesman David Meates, the chief executive of the Wairarapa DHB, said yesterday the cost of the British plan, at up to $1.7 million, was “a drop in the ocean” compared with expenditure on junior doctor locum shifts.

Boards had recruited overseas by themselves previously; now they were doing it collectively, which was cheaper.

To offset “risks”, the report says appointments will be for only 12-18 months and British graduates would be offered work “considered less desirable by NZ trainees”.

“We do not believe this proposal will disadvantage New Zealand graduates nor send a signal that we valued UK graduates more than our own.”

But junior doctors' union general secretary Deborah Powell, who starts pay talks with health boards today, disagrees. “Hiring doctors on a temporary basis at the expense of our own will only compound the shortages. It's just a temporary fix.”

In Parliament, Mr Ryall accused Health Minister Pete Hodgson of being “evasive” over what the report called a crisis.

Mr Hodgson emphasised that most vacancies were being covered by locums, who traded reduced job security for increased pay. In the past six years, doctor numbers nationally had risen by 1400.

The shortage

* New Zealand has about 2800 junior-doctor positions – ranging from medical graduates to trainee specialists.

* Some hospitals predict that later this year up to half of their positions for house officers, the more junior staff, will be vacant.

* The Government denies there is a crisis, saying most vacant positions are covered by locum doctors.