Average age a growing concern
Shortage looms as many GPs approach retirement
New Zealand GPs are not getting any younger; a fact causing concern among those in the health industry.
Delegates at the Public Health Association Conference were warned last week that all attempts to attract and retain high quality health workers to New Zealand will be ineffective unless the looming GP shortage is addressed.
Pinnacle General Practice Network population health adviser Janet Amey told delegates at Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruawahia, that the number of young doctors New Zealand is attracting to become GPs is not high enough to offset the number approaching retirement.
In Tokoroa the average age of GPs is about 62. The oldest of the seven working GP is 72, the youngest 53.
In Putaruru the town’s five GPs are between 33 and 57 years of age.
‘‘New Zealand’s doctors are ageing fast. The percentage of GPs in our network aged 55 and over has increased five per cent to 25 per cent in just three years,’’ she said.
Pinnacle encompasses the four midland district health board areas of Gisborne, Lakes, Waikato and Taranaki – containing a population of almost half a million.
While the Government has increased the number of places for students in medical school and established Health Workforce New Zealand this is not enough to address the GP shortage Ms Amey said.
‘‘We now very much rely on immigrant doctors to prop up our primary health care system.
‘‘More than half the doctors in Pinnacle were trained overseas – 54 per cent,’’ she said.
‘‘That means we are competing with very attractive overseas working destinations for the skills of these people.
‘‘Even so, on average they are not particularly young – 40 to 49 – and none of them work in rural areas that are desperate for general practitioners.’’
Ms Amey said two other trends complicate the scene. ‘‘There are many more young women doctors now which is great but many of them have young families and do not want to work fulltime.
‘‘Secondly, as GPs are ageing so too is the general population. In 2006 about 30 per cent of consultations were with over 65-year olds. We predict that in 2021 that will grow to about 38 per cent.
‘‘That means a higher demand for consultations but many will be more complex and take longer as older people seek help to manage their chronic conditions,’’ she said.
Allowing general practitioners to work past retirement age, perhaps on a part time basis, is a possible way of retaining specialist skills and experience.
Ms Amey said while the focus has been on the workforce shortage in hospitals, especially a dearth of specialist hospital staff – it is the primary sector that most people interact with.
‘‘The primary sector is the gatekeeper for the flow of people into hospitals and if that doesn’t work properly then hospitals are going to be swamped with patients,’’ she said.