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Action needed to retain doctors

The New Zealand Medical Association calls on the Government to take urgent action to retain New Zealand medical graduates by easing the debt burden faced by medical students.

Surveys published today have confirmed that most medical students face huge debt levels, and that this is contributing to the "brain drain" of doctors from New Zealand.

Today's New Zealand Medical Journal has the findings of two surveys of medical student debt. One survey was carried out at the Christchurch School of Medicine, the other at Auckland Medical School.

Among the findings were: In Christchurch -
* The median debt level for 6th year students was $70,000.
* 82 percent said they would leave New Zealand within two years of graduation.
* Less than half said they wanted to work in New Zealand for the bulk of their medical career. The three main reasons for leaving New Zealand were: - Financial opportunities overseas - Level of debt - Working conditions overseas. In Auckland -
* Average expected debt was between $60,000 and $70,000.
* 9 percent of students expected debt over $100,000.
* Maori and Pacific Island students expected to graduate with higher debt.

"The surveys confirm that we are facing a potential long term shortage of New Zealand-trained doctors," said NZMA Chairman Dr John Adams. "Most medical students graduate with huge debts, and four out of five of them plan to go overseas within two years of graduating. This trend has already starting to show in Medical Council statistics.



"The NZMA has welcomed the Government's decision to set up a Health Workforce Advisory Committee, and support its strategic approach.

"However, more needs to be done now for medical students because of the impending crisis. It makes no sense economically not to help these students, because thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money has already gone into their education. We need practical ways of reducing the burden and encouraging doctors to stay here and work.

"It is vital that those studying medicine come from all sections of the community. The financial burden makes it more difficult for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to even think about starting a medical degree. Women students are also more disadvantaged because, for various reasons, they tend to earn less when working.

"Ultimately, the cost of health care to New Zealanders is likely to increase long-term as doctors pay back their huge loans." The surveys showed that debt affects students' study - many felt impaired from participating in their course because of a lack of money. Large numbers reported worrying about their debt, which may affect concentration, motivation and commitment.

Debt also affects career choices. Lower paid specialties, such as general practice, psychiatry and public health, were less popular with students.

Medical students pay fees of around $10,000 a year, and must study for six years. Some hospitals are struggling to attract New Zealand trained registrars, and GPs are finding it difficult to find locums. Rural general practice is facing a dire shortage of doctors, as are some specialties, such as psychiatry.

Copies of the surveys, and accompanying editorials, are available from the NZMA National Office (phone 04 472 4741).

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