Government’s visa rules thwart overseas doctors despite critical rural shortages

19 November 2020

New Zealand’s rural communities are facing a healthcare crisis with more than a quarter of all rural practices being short staffed. Despite overseas-trained doctors lining up to work here, they’re being hampered by immigration red tape. 

New Zealand’s healthcare system relies on overseas-trained doctors. In normal circumstances, around 10 overseas doctors arrive here each month, to fill locum positions, particularly in rural areas. Yet despite highly trained GP and rural specialists from countries like the United States and United Kingdom wanting to work here, they can’t get in because of an immigration snafus that is starting to hurt our rural communities. 

These overseas doctors would also be providing GP and nurse practitioner relief to rural practices to allow for rest and recuperation. It is hard to take a break from practice at the best of times but with the pandemic response situation this has become increasingly difficult especially in rural areas. 

Dr Samantha Murton, President of The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (pictured left) says, “Bureaucracy is getting in the way of supporting our rural communities. New Zealand has been through a major health crisis this year and our patients deserve the best care, which means having enough specialists in general practice and rural hospital medicine to meet patient’s ongoing demand.”

Dr Grant Davidson, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Rural General Practitioners Network, says, “The lack of overseas-trained doctors coming into the country is an issue we’ve been highlighting with the Minister for Immigration for months and one that could be quickly and easily solved by Immigration New Zealand. These are critical health workers. We believe they should be allowed to apply for visas and be let in. 

“As it stands any doctor whose contract with a New Zealand practice or hospital starts after 30 December 2020 can’t get a visa. 

“To be eligible to work in New Zealand they have to find a contract that starts before the end of the year, leave their life overseas, and move their family all before 30 December 2020, which seems like unreasonable pressure.

“Failure to lift the date restriction means the rural health workforce will not have the capacity to cope with the immediate health needs of rural communities in New Zealand, nor the health needs of bach owners who like to spend their summer vacations in rural communities. 

“We need the Government to extend the visa exemption now for these essential workers.

“We also need the Government to cover the costs of community health workers and their families staying in managed isolation on their arrival, which happens for hospital-based health workers,” Dr Davidson says.

Dr Samantha Murton agrees saying, “There’s no downside here to letting more highly-trained doctors into the country; they’re going to be providing relief and cover for a fatigued workforce and be bolstering the medical services in desperate rural communities.

“Not having enough doctors to serve a community’s health needs is a significant issue because it places severe stress on the short-staffed team in a clinic, and it means the possibility of closed books, which denies GP access to people who often don’t have the option of popping down the road to an alternative practice, like their urban counterparts do,” says Dr Murton. 

New Zealand Rural General Practice Network (RGPN) holds the government funded contract to provide GP locum services through their NZLocums recruitment agency. They recruit general practitioners to work in rural New Zealand for both long term and permanent placements. The chronic workforce shortages for rural general practice are well documented and publicised. There are currently 50 vacancies across New Zealand for permanent GP positions. This represents more than 25 percent of all rural practices being short staffed.