John and Sue have seen the Kāwhia population drop dramatically, from 600 to 300. Dr Burton says, after 9/11, people decided Kāwhia would make an excellent future bolthole and bought up the cheap houses, displacing the locals.
It’s still a high-needs population with not much employment, but it’s also very resilient and people support each other, Dr Burton says. He is always on call but, because everyone knows him, people never abuse the after-hours system – to the point that someone with a broken femur waited until the next day to call.
The high unemployment rate also helps Kawhia Health Centre do a good job as a teaching practice. Because most patients aren’t rushing back to work, they are happy to take longer with the medical students.
Patients also know having students helps with staff recruitment, and they sometimes prefer an out-of-towner to confide in.
Feedback from students who have trained at the practice and been swept up in the life of the community is overwhelmingly positive, some doing U-turns from wanting to work in hospitals to becoming rural GPs.
One former student recently returned to provide cover while the Burtons took a six-month sabbatical, including time at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Canada. The focus there is on training and placing doctors in rural communities.
Not surprisingly, Dr Burton is a proponent of the Waikato rural medical school idea.