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Archive for May, 2018

A World Apart

It’s hard to believe that I have been practicing medicine in New Zealand for 7 months. The time has flown by.

 

There are so many differences between the medical system where I’m practicing in rural New Zealand and where I trained in America. In medical school I predominantly trained in inner-city hospitals, and in residency I largely worked in urban hospitals and clinics. I had occasional electives in rural settings, but the majority of my time in medical school and residency was spent in or near major medical centers. The clinic where I work in New Zealand is rural, but we’re also only 45 minutes from a major hospital in case of emergency. There are also 24-hour surgeries (which would be considered Urgent Care in the US) that will see our patients in town on nights and weekends. This means that my colleagues and I don’t have any night or weekend call, which is fantastic for having a life outside of work.

 

sheep

Rural General Practitioners are not limited to one species…

 

I work in New Zealand as a GP- a “General Practitioner”. GPs are the entry-way into the medical system in New Zealand. Pregnant women can directly go to midwives, and patients can see physiotherapists without referral, but if you need non-urgent medical care in New Zealand you go to the GP who will refer you on to a specialist as needed. Being in a rural, farming, community I see some different medical issues than I did back home. In my first month of practice I joked that I could easily compile a book on 101-ways to be hurt by a cow (or a sheep for that matter), but while there are a few illnesses that people get in New Zealand that I never heard about in training (take Orf for example) the human body is remarkably consistent around the globe. Practicing medicine on this side of the world is the same as practicing anywhere else, just in a different medical system with slightly different practices and medications.

 

In America, healthcare is largely a for-profit industry that relies on individuals having insurance. In contrast, New Zealand has a robust public health care system funded largely by taxation. While some of my patients have private insurance, it is a luxury, not a necessity as it is in the United States. I have been blown away by the effectiveness and efficiency of the healthcare system here- when I have a patient that needs acute medical admission, I call the medical registrar (essentially a senior resident) who agrees to evaluate my patient in the acute assessment unit in the hospital and works-up, treats, and/or admits my patient to the hospital as appropriate. If I have an unwell child that I’m not comfortable managing in the community, I call pediatrics. If I’m not sure which specialty will admit the patient, and the patient needs further workup before that decision is made, patients will be evaluated in the emergency department. But we’re often able to bypass the emergency department, saving everyone’s time and money.

 

If you need non-urgent specialist care in New Zealand, and you don’t have private insurance, you will have a bit of a wait. When I ask a specialist to see a patient I give then triage information, and they may have to wait 4 months to see a specialist. But urgent matters get urgent care, and as a GP I can always call a specialist and ask for recommendations while my patient is waiting for formal specialist review.

 

One of my favorite aspects of the public medical system in New Zealand is Pharmac- the Pharmaceutical Management Agency- the government agency that buys and supplies pharmaceuticals for the New Zealand healthcare system. In brief: Pharmac negotiates and bulk-buys product and supplies all the pharmacists in New Zealand. If a medication can be prescribed by a GP and is a subsidized medication (something that Pharmac buys), patients can get a 3-month supply for $5. They can get a 3-month supply of a blood pressure medication for $5. They can get a 3-month supply of insulin, or a 3-month supply of a necessary inhaler, each for $5. On average, Americans who need insulin spend hundreds of dollars per month on insulin, and I had patients in this category. in New Zealand they pay $5 for 3 months (or maybe $10 if they have 2 types of insulin). I recently started one of my patients on Spiriva- an inhaled medication used for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder). This is an expensive medication, but a General Practitioner can prescribe if they apply for a special authority number. In order to get this special authority I open up a tab on the electronic medical record, confirm that my patient has COPD, confirm that her pulmonary function warrants this treatment, confirm that her symptoms are not controlled on her other medications (and that she’s on other medications) and hit “submit”. In under 10 seconds I can now prescribe this medication for the patient. In the US getting “prior authorization” for specific drugs through insurance companies can take weeks…

 

On the other hand, routine drug prescriptions in the US can be for a year, potentially saving three visits to the clinic every year…

 

I could write about how much I love Pharmac for hours. I’ll admit there are some shortcomings, and in America there are a myriad reasons we can’t and won’t have a system like Pharmac, but I love being able to give a patient a prescription and know they can get a medication for 3 months for $5, and not having to worry if the patient’s insurance will cover a medication for a small copay, not cover the medication at all, or require pages of paperwork from my office to get the medication approved. Of course Kiwis pay for this in their taxes, but New Zealanders see this as a no-brainer…

 

Outside of medicine, life in New Zealand is grand. In the last 7 months I’ve read more books than in the last 3 years. I’ve racked up many Ks on my mountain bike, explored a lot of the south island, and made many new friends.  New Zealand is a great place to work and play, so it’s no suprise that I love it here!

ogr

About 24 hours into the Old Ghost Road… You can see the trail climbing and traversing the mountain to my right. 

Till next time!

 

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