Wellington Scoop

Third medical school a waste of taxpayers’ money, says vice-chancellor

Press Release – Professor Stuart McCutcheon
The Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University says that the third medical school originally proposed for Wellington and now proposed for Hamilton and the Waikato would be a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.

Professor Stuart McCutcheon says, “The proposal is based on claims that there is a shortage of doctors in New Zealand, in particular a shortage of general practitioners in the regional and rural areas, and that the existing programmes have failed to address these issues. These claims are not correct.”

“The government already has in place a programme to achieve the modest increase in numbers of medical graduates that the health sector agrees are required.

“The country’s two medical schools have responded by increasing student numbers as requested and this programme will reach its full cohort in 2020, by which time we will be producing 570 medical graduates each year, 200 more than in 2008.”

However this increase in medical graduate numbers would be threatened by the Waikato proposal.

“The CEO of the Waikato District Health Board has already written to our Dean of Medicine advising that, if their proposal goes ahead, the number of clinical places available to Auckland graduates will fall by at least 96 students each year.”

Professor McCutcheon says that no alternative exists to relocate these students because there is already a shortage of clinical placements across the country.

“In simple terms, the proposal would replace students from the Auckland programme with those from Waikato and would not lead to the net gain in medical graduates that is claimed.

“The proposal would be a waste of money because it makes more sense to use existing resources than to invest additional resources in a whole new medical school. We have several hundred million dollars invested in facilities to train doctors, and we have been able to take on the additional students at no added capital cost to the taxpayer. This is the scale of the investment required to establish and operate an accredited medical programme. It would make no sense to duplicate this investment or a substantial part of it elsewhere.”

Professor McCutcheon says that very significant taxpayer investment would also be required to raise the quality of Waikato’s academic programmes to the standard required for a medical school.

“All but one of the medically related subjects at Auckland and Otago are ranked among the top 150 universities in the world, and in some subjects considerably higher. Other New Zealand universities have some of these subjects ranked in the top 300-500, but the University of Waikato has none.”

Finally with respect to cost, the proposed Waikato programme would cost government about the same funding per student but take longer than existing programmes because it would be a graduate degree.

“Students would need to have completed a three- or four- year undergraduate degree and then the 4-year medical degree at Waikato. This means the total study time (and cost to students) required for the proposed Waikato programme would be seven years, a year longer than the programmes at Auckland and Otago.”

Professor McCutcheon acknowledges that New Zealand continues to import doctors. “This in part reflects the lag between the increased intake into the existing medical programmes and the increased availability of qualified doctors, and in part the shortage of doctors willing to serve in the rural and regional areas. Three quarters of these overseas doctors stay less than two years in New Zealand because they are here primarily for work experience and the overall dependency on overseas-trained doctors in this country is falling as our domestic numbers rise.”

Meanwhile, both the Auckland and Otago medical schools have extensive programmes to encourage their graduates to practice in the rural and regional areas. These programmes operate nationwide, not just in one region.

“Given that the issue for New Zealand is not the number of medical graduates but rather where they practice, setting up a new medical programme, especially a postgraduate programme, would be an extremely expensive way of addressing the rural-regional issue,” says Professor McCutcheon.

“If the government, which prides itself on being fiscally responsible, wants to increase the number of doctors practising in the rural and regional areas then it could use taxpayer money much more efficiently by working with the existing medical schools to further enhance the likelihood of our current graduates choosing to work in those areas.”

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