13 Sep 2023

Labour announces plans to train hundreds more doctors by 2027

5:14 pm on 13 September 2023

An extra 95 doctors will be accepted for training from 2025 under a Labour policy announced on Wednesday morning.

National has already announced it will set up a new medical school at the University of Waikato, and says it would add another 50 placements in Otago and Auckland from 2025.

Labour says its policy will deliver more doctors faster than National's plan to fund a new medical school.

Leader Chris Hipkins said an extra 335 more doctors per year by 2027 would cost $1 billion over 10 years.

Speaking at a media briefing at Otago University, he said the workforce shortages in the healthcare sector were similar to what was happening around the world.

"So New Zealand needs to really ramp up its efforts if we're going to train the workforce we need here in New Zealand."

Chris Hipkins and Ayesha Verrall in Dunedin

Chris Hipkins and Dr Ayesha Verrall at Otago University today. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He said it would put the two medical schools under a lot of pressure, but the feedback they had received was that the schools would be able to handle it. It was a better option than National's plans for opening a new medical school, he said.

"Waiting three or four years to get a new medical school up and running isn't a good solution to the immediate pressure we're under ... it's already going to take time to train the extra doctors we need; this will do it a lot faster."

'We're still just playing catch-up' - senior doctors on strike

Labour's promise came as more than 5000 senior doctors and hospital dentists around the country carried out their second strike of the month, walking off the job at 10am, over their deadlocked pay negotiations.

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) said the latest offer by Te Whatu Ora Healthcare New Zealand was below inflation, amounting to a pay cut for the third year in a row for its members.

Dr Julian Vyas, on the picket line at Wellington Hospital, said the boost to student numbers was great - but it would be 10 or 15 years before any of them qualified as consultants.

"We estimate that we need 1700 specialist doctors and dentists now. So we need those people yesterday. Fifty more places in our medical schools, that's an investment in our future ... but there's also a crisis now with staff morale, staff fatigue, burnout and that longer-term gain does not address the immediate problems."

Julian Vyas on the picket line in Wellington.

Julian Vyas on the picket line in Wellington. Photo: Bill Hickman / RNZ

A survey by the union found 40 percent of doctors were thinking about doing more work in the private sector, which would mean less capacity in public hospitals, he said.

"I'm 60 this year and there's others like me who are looking at cutting down hours, retiring early, because we're burned out."

ASMS estimated there was a $2 billion shortfall in healthcare funding, as it had failed to keep pace with inflation.

"This government has put more in, but we're still just playing catch-up."

Anaesthetist Jackson Harding moved to Wellington from Australia after his wife got a job in the capital.

"I am earning less than half what I was in Australia. And a specialist here could go and work on the locum circuit in Australia, because there are shortages everywhere, and earn in a day what they earn in a week here."

Amanda Tristram, a specialist in gynaecological cancers, said in her department they had 1.5 doctors doing the jobs of three.

"But we just can't recruit staff."

It was "fantastic news" that New Zealand was going to train more doctors, she said, but there was a risk the country would lose them to Australia. Many trainees now go across the Tasman to complete their training and never return.

"I'm sure Australia will be really grateful that we're going to train them a lot more doctors," Dr Tristram said, "because unless the final salary is improved here, they're just going to go off to jobs in Australia.

"At the moment, our doctors coming out of training are taking a pay cut to take up a senior medical position. So yes, it's a great day for the Australian medical system."

Palliative care specialist Sinead Donnelly said she and her colleagues were exhausted.

"We're kind of the bottom of the barrel and it's assumed that we'll just keep going, but we can't keep going. We'll fall over, and we're already falling over.

"I love medicine, I love caring for patients, I love supporting their families, but I'm exhausted, I'm worn out and I'm not able to do as good a job as I could if it was more supported and if we were more valued."

Protesters on the picket line in Wellington.

Protesters on the picket line in Wellington. Photo: Bill Hickman / RNZ

Nurse Jenny Kendall, who had clocked up a 55-year career, joined the picket line in Wellington to show solidarity with her medical colleagues.

"We're a team. I admire the doctors - this is the first time ever they've gone on strike, and I know what it's like.

"I remember when we nurses first went on strike and people thought it was absolutely evil and how dare we do this? But we're human beings, and we're entitled to quality working conditions and salaries to go with it."

Te Whatu Ora said it had contacted patients whose appointments needed to be rescheduled and everyone else with an outpatient or surgery appointment should attend as planned.

Emergency departments remained open during the two-hour strike, which ran until midday.

The union already gave notice of another strike on Thursday, 21 September, which will be four hours long. They will next have mediated talks on Tuesday.

Doctors supported by nurses picket Wellington hospital. ASMS president Julian Vyas says extra spaces in med schools will take five years before new students are junior doctors and 15 before they become specialists.

Doctors supported by nurses picket Wellington hospital. ASMS president Julian Vyas says extra spaces in med schools will take five years before new students are junior doctors and 15 before they become specialists. Photo: RNZ/Bill Hickman

Hipkins details Labour's plan for more doctors

The extra number of doctors Labour announced would be on top of the 50 more places already planned for that will start from next year.

In total it will mean an additional 335 doctors trained every year from 2027, meaning the country would have 874 doctors (a 62 percent increase) going through the country's two medical schools at Auckland University and Otago University.

"We need more doctors given the decades of underfunding of our health system, and this record boost to our doctor training will make a difference for years to come," Hipkins said.

If re-elected, Labour intended to expand the health workforce to ease the pressure on many roles, health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall said.

Their previously-announced policies would:

  • Create 700 extra nursing places in 2024
  • Expand new 'earn and learn' training opportunities
  • Increase international recruitment with 300 additional senior medical officers
  • Settle pay equity for hospital midwives, continuing improving pay for the health workforce
  • Scale up earn-as-you-learn modular training
  • Continue prioritising key health professions through the Green List and review regularly to plug skills gaps

"Our health workers have done more for New Zealanders than people will ever know, holding the system together not just through Covid, but for years preceding due to years of neglect and underinvestment," Dr Verrall said.

"There is still so much to do. We understand things are still hard for many New Zealanders, but we are starting to move the dial and with the worst of the pandemic over, we're free to drive our plan forward at a greater speed."

She said Labour's health achievements included increases in senior nurses salaries, recruiting another 4800 nurses, 1800 more doctors, and 700 more psychologists, boosting Pharmac spending and making doctors' visits cheaper.

"We've launched a massive rebuild programme to improve our hospitals, build new ones, and upgrade our health infrastructure," she said.

Hipkins added: "Labour has invested heavily in our health system. We have a job to finish and ensuring we have the staff we need is top of our list of priorities for our next term."

National: 'Just not credible or believable'

National's leader Christopher Luxon said Labour's plan was not credible or believable given they had been in government for six years already.

"They have had six years in power and they've only just started to work out we have a health workforce problem here in New Zealand," he said.

"It's just not credible or believable 31 days out from election [that] they have a massive idea about how to actually grow the workforce in New Zealand for health when we've been under so much pressure and stress for six years."

He rejected the suggestion Labour's plan - which proposed to train more doctors, faster - was a better one that National's.

"No, because we open up the 100 extra medical places at Auckland, Otago in 2025 and the medical school opens up in 2027 and the great thing about the third medical school is it's a graduate-entry programme, meaning it's a four-year programme.

"The research says that if you can get someone doing their training in a regional centre, they build their relationships there and they become your local GP and they work in your local hospital.

"The next best time to increase and open up a third medical school is tomorrow. It would have been great to have head at six years ago so we're not having this conversation today."

He suggested the short-term solution was to open up immigration.

"We've got to start somewhere. And we've got to also open up our immigration settings.

"Either we solve these problems, or we just keep talking about them. We came here to do the business and to get this country sorted and turned around. That's what we'll do."

This was despite the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update (PREFU), released the previous day, warning extra immigration would risk adding to inflation and increasing house prices.

The update showed Treasury expected immigration would taper off in coming years, having spiked after Covid-19 due to pent-up demand.

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