New Zealand’s health sector is nearing a service delivery crisis, and the already struggling rural areas could be the worst hit if more nurses and doctors are not trained up to work in rural practices.
Part of solving this problem is encouraging school students in rural New Zealand to consider medical and health careers.
To help this cause and inspire school students, a group of third-year nursing students from Whitireia in Wellington, joined a tour of rural schools in the lower North Island to talk about why they, as young people, have chosen nursing as a career.
The programme of rural visits was arranged by the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network (NZRGPN) who partner with tertiary health students to promote health and medical careers to school students in rural New Zealand. Tertiary students on the tours are often members of Students of Rural Health Aotearoa – New Zealand’s only rural health student network.
“This was the first time that we have been asked to participate in this tour,” says Leanne Pool, Programme Manager, Nursing at Whitireia. “It was a fantastic opportunity for our students to promote nursing as a career choice to young people.”
Students, Rachael Rowe, Lagisi Wirangi, Katrin Scott, Laura Winter and Mickey Walker travelled over five days all the way up from where their campus is in Wellington, through the Wairarapa, Central Hawkes Bay, to Napier and back again on the tour.
“We already had medical students join us but we really wanted some nursing students to come along too,” says Esther Maxim, Rural Health Careers Programme Manager for the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network (NZRGPN) “and that is why we contacted Whitireia. It is also a great way to strengthen our relationship with Whitireia.”
“Young people are a lot better at engaging with other young people, they understand the challenges or confusion school students often face in terms of choosing a career, so that is why we chose tertiary students to visit the rural schools to encourage the pupils to complete their secondary education and hopefully pursue one of the many rewarding careers in rural health,” said Esther.
"Statistics suggest that the most effective time to talk to kids about their career option is prior to Year 10," says Esther.
Whitireia nursing student, who joined the tour, Lagisi Wirangi is a prime example of this. “I’ve known that I wanted to be a nurse since I was 14 years old. My Grandmother was sick so I spent a lot of time with her in the hospital and in that time I saw firsthand how truly important nurses are.”
Rachael Rowe from Whitireia also on the tour explained that a big part of what they were doing was explaining to the school students the different pathways available to a career as a health practitioner. “I think often young people do not seek a career in health because they think their marks are not good enough. But there are so many ways to train nowadays and it’s not all about studying for years at university to be a doctor.”
Although the tertiary students were there to teach the rural school pupils about their career options, they were learning a lot themselves.
“I spent my childhood driving up north to Gisborne but we never really stopped in the small towns on the way,” explained Lagisi, “it was really surprising to me how isolated so many of the rural towns are in New Zealand. I had always seen it driving past but never stopped to consider what that isolation really means for the people living in those towns.”
“After speaking to the students, we also spent a bit of time going to local hospitals and health facilities and it was really eye opening to see what they were working with” explained Rachael.
“Not only were they under-staffed, but the medical centres often provide care to a huge catchment area so it can take hours to get to a centre to get care. This means that a lot of people only seek care when their condition becomes severe, which can be very dangerous. It also leaves the community feeling very isolated.”
While the issue of mental health was not raised by the students, it was a big part of what was discussed when Rachael and Lagisi went to the rural medical centres.
“We know that the highest rates of suicide in New Zealand are among men in rural areas, so it was shocking to me, as someone who is going into mental health nursing, just how ill-equipped the rural areas are to help these men” explained Racheal. “This is something that I am really passionate about, so I really want to do another road trip where we purely discuss nursing and mental health!”