15 Jul 2022

A Rural GP speaks out

From Country Life, 9:16 pm on 15 July 2022

This week an open letter was sent to the prime minister by the New Zealand Women in Medicine Charitable Trust warning that New Zealand's health system was at risk of a "catastrophic collapse." Anthea Prentice is a Cheviot rural GP who took part in the survey.

She says this crisis has been coming for a long time. The pandemic has simply highlighted it and been the "straw that broke the camel's back", forcing doctors to speak out. 

Dr Anthea Prentice Cheviot GP

Photo: Anthea Prentice

She says it's political for Health Minister, Andrew Little, to not call it a crisis and, at a ministry level, there is some acceptance and recognition that the medical workforce is at breaking point.   

There is a crisis in the rural areas, according to Prentice who says the situation is dire for rural GPs.  

"Big areas are not covered, or there are long waits, and more vulnerable areas are under-serviced.

"This leads to a much higher need for secondary services down the track. This is one of the main complaints.  Primary care right across the country needs to work better," she said.

From a general practitioner's perspective, and a rural one in particular, Prentice said they feel like the "poor cousin" to those giving secondary care in hospitals.

"The money is funnelled in through the secondary care much more than into the primary and it has developed quite a disparity of the pay that's happening for the medical workforce that work in the community as opposed to the medical workforce that works in the hospital."

Prentice said the disparity isn't just around money but also about conditions, with provision in hospitals for time to attend conferences,  peer review and opportunities for team support.

"When you're a rural solo practitioner ... you're having to find locum cover for any time that you have off for family, or recreation, training, keeping yourself skilled and safe. That has to come out of your own pocket."

Prentice believes the country as a whole doesn't value GPs. She said there's a sense of "you're just a GP" when it's the primary care that should get priority.  Care at this level keeps people out of hospitals.

One million people live rurally and Prentice said this is where much more effort and money needs to go.

She would also like to see medical schools putting all trainees into the community for longer.

It was a rewarding side of medicine to be involved in, she said.

Mr Little responded to doctors' concerns, saying he acknowledged the "really tough winter" after two years of pandemic and work was continuing to fill staffing gaps.

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