Nurse Practitioners are leading the charge in Tuatapere

Sheryl Eden at work in Tuatapere Medical Centre.

Mātanga Tapuhi Nurse Practitioner Sheryl Eden is proving the undeniable value of Nurse Practitioners to rural practices through her role at Tuatapere Medical Centre.

More and more rural practices like Tuatapere are relying on Nurse Practitioners to fill the gaps in their workforce due to ongoing GP shortages throughout New Zealand.

Sheryl is one of the Nurse Practitioners recruited by NZLocums through the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network’s contract with the Ministry of Health.

This contract was created to support rural health providers who are facing chronic GP shortages, with the aim of improving access to health services and health outcomes in these communities.

Sheryl has had an impressive 26-year career as a Registered Nurse before she trained to become a Nurse Practitioner.

Her experience as a Registered Nurse includes working in hospital wards, emergency departments, and general practice throughout Southland and South Westland, in both urban and remote towns.

Hailing from a rural background herself, Sheryl relishes rural work and Tuatapere offers the benefits of this as well as being close to her family.

Sheryl was drawn to the Nurse Practitioner role at Tuatapere particularly due to the opportunity to work with the PRIME service on weekends, one of her biggest interests after working as a PRIME nurse for the last 10 years.

Sheryl says that one of the most important and rewarding aspects of working in a rural community is the ability to work more closely with her patients and develop deeper and more meaningful connections with them.

“In rural practice, you have much more of a chance to get to know your patients, to get to know social context around them, their families, where they live,” she says.

This is particularly important in a rural town where there are plenty of challenges to navigate including geographical distances, lack of health literacy, and poverty, which all affect patient healthcare options.

Sheryl says rural people also often have different health needs and different expectations of healthcare, and this is something she has grown to understand in Tuatapere.

“It took a little while to get a feel for people here and what their expectations are.”

Typically, patients in this area have higher expectations of what healthcare they can access for often chronic and complicated health conditions.

“You have to ask open questions of people, to find out what kind of care they can afford. Some people just expect to be referred or expect to meet public criteria,” Sheryl says.

Jo Sanford, Practice Manager at Tuatapere Medical Centre says Sheryl has developed close connections with her patients because she fits in well with the community.

“She is like-minded, very outdoorsy and understanding,” Jo says.

“She also has good rural skills coming from her experience in much more remote areas.”

It is no secret that the practice has struggled to recruit a permanent GP for a long time, like many other rural practices throughout New Zealand.

Jo says they jumped on the opportunity to bring another Nurse Practitioner into their Practice when they heard about the Network’s initiative.

“There was a real risk of burnout for our lead practitioner,” Jo says.

“The opportunity arose, and we thought maybe this is for us.

“We also knew Sheryl would fit in with us here at the practice.”

The addition of another Nurse Practitioner at Tuatapere Medical Centre has had resounding benefits for both the practice and the community.

Jo says that having a second practitioner has made a significant difference in the running of the practice and their ability to provide healthcare to the community more effectively.

For Amanda McCracken, the lead practitioner, it means she can now balance her time between seeing patients and doing paperwork, creating more balance within the practice.

Jo says the feedback from the community has also been very positive, with less waiting time for patients and with both Nurse Practitioners capable of managing this.

“There’s a lot less waiting time and it’s not at a detriment to the practitioner.

“Generally, people don’t have to wait, and having Sheryl has made it more possible for patients to see a practitioner on the day,” Jo says.

With a second Nurse Practitioner in the practice, it also means they can continue to run two clinics, two mornings a week, one in Tuatapere and one in the nearby town of Ohai. This would be difficult to manage without two Practitioners.

For Ohai – a low socio-economic, high needs community with a high Māori population – this clinic is a vital service for them, and it is only with Sheryl’s support that they can continue to operate it.

Because of the GP shortages throughout New Zealand, it is now becoming more common for rural practices to be Nurse Practitioner led, and Sheryl says this is due to their capability of providing the healthcare needed in their communities without a doctor.

“I think we provide a good standard of care in rural and remote communities where doctors don’t want to go,” Sheryl says.

“Nurse Practitioners are more than capable of leading and mentoring a practice and providing healthcare to often isolated communities.”

From the experience at Tuatapere so far, it is evident to see why Nurse Practitioners are playing such an important role in understaffed rural practices and ultimately in improving equitable access to healthcare in their communities.

Through this experience, and the other Nurse Practitioner placements that make up the Ministry’s contract, the Network aims to promote the Nurse Practitioner role and to help grow the Nurse Practitioner workforce in New Zealand.

Background information on the Ministry of Health Nurse Practitioner contract
In 2020, the Network was granted a Ministry of Health contract to establish four full time equivalent permanent Nurse Practitioner roles within eligible rural health services. The Nurse Practitioner Recruitment Initiative enables the Network to select the participating rural health services, establish the new Nurse Practitioner role, and recruit four Nurse Practitioners into those rural health services. Funding is also provided for the participating health services for the Nurse Practitioner’s remuneration and support package, and for evaluation of the initiative.