NZ Herald: Cecilia Robinson: Let’s hear it for those holding healthcare together

Article originally published by the NZ Herald on 12/05/2023 

Today, for International Nurses Day, we celebrate the 54,000 nurses working in our communities across Aotearoa.

These nurses provide remarkable and invaluable care in our hospitals, communities, hospices, and our primary healthcare practices. To see nurses in action is to understand that nursing is a vocation. I’m always relieved by the calm, reassuring presence of a nurse coupled with the excellent clinical care provided.

I see the positive impact that our nurses have on our patients and clinicians on a daily basis. For our patients, they are capable and kind. For our healthcare sector, they are the future. But where I’ve really seen the potential of the nursing profession come into its own is in the role of a nurse practitioner.

If you haven’t come across one before, nurse practitioners are highly qualified with at least four years experience as a nurse, then a master’s degree, plus post masters vocational training.

Nurse practitioners are not GPs, nor do they pretend to be. They’re not a “cheaper” or “quicker-to-train” version of a GP. Nor a threat to the specialised work GPs do.

What they are is a vital part of the solution to a primary healthcare system that is victim to decades of underinvestment — not only with our people, but also with our systems.

The regions are struggling to attract GPs and things aren’t much better in the cities. In a recent report provided to Parliament’s health select committee, Te Whatu Ora (Counties Manukau) estimated the area is 127 GPs short.

Our current GPs are part of an ageing workforce, with many approaching retirement. The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners predicts the number of GPs per 100,000 will drop from 74 in 2021 to just 70 by 2031.

Add to this a few years of pandemic pressures, and we find ourselves in a situation where people are waiting weeks to see a doctor —many of whom are working 70 hours a week to keep up.

Our recent consumer research, the Tend Health Index, found getting an appointment with a doctor at a time that suits is an issue for almost a quarter of New Zealanders (22 per cent).

Nurse practitioners can relieve the bottleneck at most clinics around the country. They can issue prescriptions and help people get up to date with screening, vaccinations, and health check-ups. They can help manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, alongside our GPs.

Some people will hold fast to an old fashioned idea that they must see a GP and wait weeks to be seen, with the delays detrimental to their health. Others will see nurse practitioners and access excellent healthcare that meets their needs.

A burgeoning workforce of nurse practitioners has the potential to make a significant impact on the health of New Zealanders.

With the pressures primary care is under, we need to be doing everything we can to improve primary care in Aotearoa. Nurse practitioners are part of the answer. I can’t understand why we’re not doing more to encourage more nurses to train as nurse practitioners.

In a move described as highly unusual, nine (otherwise competing) nursing colleges got together to lobby for funding to double nurse practitioner numbers by reducing the costs to those pursuing the
qualification. The request was declined last year. Why?

While government and system-level changes are essential, individuals also have a part to play in transforming the future of healthcare. By choosing to see a nurse practitioner when appropriate, patients can actively support our nurse practitioners. This will contribute to a more sustainable and accessible primary care system.

To fully leverage the potential of nurse practitioners in Aotearoa, it’s crucial to invest in their education and training, making it more accessible and affordable for aspiring professionals. The collective effort of nursing colleges to lobby for funding is a testament to the importance and urgency of this issue.

It’s time for policymakers to acknowledge the value of nurse practitioners and support their growth and development.

The future of healthcare in New Zealand lies in the hands of our healthcare professionals, policymakers, and patients.

On this International Nurses Day, let us celebrate the remarkable contributions of nurses and recognise the vital role nurses and nurse practitioners play currently and in shaping the future of primary care.

By working together, we can build a more resilient, accessible, and patient centred healthcare system for all New