30 Mar 2009

Govt set to expand rural staff bonding scheme

9:17 am on 30 March 2009

Health Minister Tony Ryall says the Government will extend its bonding scheme to attract doctors and other health workers to rural districts that are difficult to staff.

It is providing cash incentives for student doctors, midwives, nurses, veterinarians and teachers who are prepared to be bonded to work in those areas.

The bonding scheme for the health sector does not include all regions.

Mr Ryall told the Rural General Practitioners Network Conference in Wellington on Saturday that areas that have been identified as hard to staff in the voluntary bonding scheme for the first year, could expand next year.

He says the Government needs to expand the scheme both geographically, but also in some hard to staff specialty areas such as obstetrics.

Travel allowance increased

Mr Ryall also told rural health workers that the Government will boost the travel allowance for patients needing specialist services.

He says the subsidy will rise from 20 cents to 28 cents a kilometre.

Mr Ryall says the increase will take effect from next month, and will help rural people whose specialists refer them to services in bigger centres.

Rural Women New Zealand president Margaret Chapman says any increase in the allowance is of benefit in the current economic conditions.

On Friday, doctors at the conference expressed concern about the effects of the recession on the health of rural families.

One Coromandel practice estimates that consultations between December and the end of February were down 10% on the same period a year ago.

National chairperson of the Rural GPs Network, Kirsty Murrell-McMillan, says the immediate concern is that minor medical issues may become more serious because people are putting off going to the doctor.

She says the economic downturn will also cause more stress-related illnesses in rural communities, but many who need medical support will not be able to pay for it.

Rural specialist category

Meanwhile, 10 country doctors are being recognised as New Zealand's first specialists in rural hospital medicine.

The Medical Council created a new category of specialist last year to recognise the skills of doctors working in the area.

The Royal College of GPs says the doctors recognised at a function in Wellington on Friday had been assessed over the past few months, but had years of experience.

Garry Nixon, chairperson of the college's division of rural hospital medicine, says the new specialty will also help to solve staff shortages by giving younger doctors a career path.

Dr Nixon says six junior doctors became the first to begin a four-year training programme in December so they could also become rural hospital specialists.