Waikato University wants NZ’s third medical school

Recently the University of Waikato tossed a stink bomb into the heart of the country’s academic establishment when it proposed the setting up of a third medical school in New Zealand.

This third medical school would be very different from the long established medical school at Otago and its younger (started in 1968) counterpart in Auckland. Instead of the six-year course Auckland and Otago currently offer, the proposed Waikato Medical School would provide four years of medical training following on from the student successfully completing a three-year undergraduate degree.

Waikato’s initiative is a joint one with the Waikato District Health Board, one of the country’s largest DHBs with around 3200 staff. Trainee doctors would be taught in the Waikato Hospital as well as in the numerous smaller hospitals serving the region. If approved, the first intake at the Waikato Medical School would be in 2020.

Do we need another medical school?

Right now, New Zealand imports a staggering 1100 doctors each year from a wide range of countries to practice in New Zealand. The 290 young doctors Otago graduated last year along with the 219 from Auckland are simply not enough to cope with a population that is growing by more than 80,000 each year.

And many of these local graduates – 85% of them – choose not to become General Practitioners (GPs), most preferring to study further and become specialist doctors. This has created a shortage of GPs in regional and rural areas in particular, and it is this shortage that the proposed Waikato medical school sets out to fix.

From an initial proposed intake of 60 medical trainees (building to 200), Waikato hopes to graduate at least 60% of these as GPs who will work in rural and regional settings, not the big cities. Preference for entry will be given to students from rural backgrounds, hopefully meaning more will return to rural settings to practice after graduation. Currently admission to Otago does not involve an interview and is largely based, like Auckland, on first-year grades only, not an applicant’s background or motivations.

The establishment fights back

The Waikato proposal has certainly not been embraced by the established schools, and that’s where the stink comes in. The dean of Auckland’s medical school aggressively called the idea foolhardy and an ‘an ill-considered and expensive folly’. Otago’s medical dean opposed the idea too, saying it would be disruptive for Otago and Auckland medical schools. The two organisations then unveiled a joint plan they said would start to address the rural doctor shortfalls, something that could or should perhaps have been in place well before the Waikato idea was on the table.

The Waikato Students Union is however a big fan of the idea. And if you are a student not from a main city and possibly thinking that you might want to train as a doctor, want to serve the community you are from but don’t want to head to Auckland or Dunedin, you should be a fan too. You could potentially get underway with an undergraduate degree – you still need to do it well though – and if medicine is still your dream after that, maybe the Waikato option could be ideal.

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