Eketahuna lost its GP 30 years ago but the town’s resilience in dealing with health issues is inspiring health and wellbeing advocates from the rest of Tararua who are determined to visit and find out how they do things.

When Eketahuna’s last GP retired, the southern Tararua community set up the first nurse-led health clinic in New Zealand in April 1988.

They do things their way, Adrienne Dempsey, chairwoman of the Eketahuna Health Centre, said in Dannevirke recently.

And while issuing a plea to the Tararua Health Group for a doctor to relieve the town’s ills, Dempsey outlined a grassroots health service others were keen to learn more about.

The centre operates with a part-time receptionist and two registered nurses.

“We don’t have an administration hierarchy and we’re open to change, innovation and technology,” she said.

“Some of our patients are wealthy, but most are poor. We are likely to put on the kettle and get out the biscuits when people turn up.”

General consultations with one of the two nurses aren’t constrained by 15-minute time slots, with a fee of just $5. Additional consultations such as cervical smears have a higher charge.

Administered by a charitable trust, with $100,000 in annual funding from the MidCentral District Health Board, the health centre is a health hub in the true sense of the word.

Last year the centre was the first in New Zealand to open an exercise room.

“We have a community garden and we run cooking classes for those going off flatting as well as a homework centre,” Dempsey said.

“We have a MenzShed group and also run a foodbank.

“We are proud and we’re passionate about the health wellbeing of our community.”

Other services offered include budgeting, counselling and Plunket classes.

However, with clinic hours 9am to 4.30pm, there were problems in seeing young people who didn’t get off their school buses until 4.30pm, Dempsey said.

During the past 30 years, the clinic had a visit one day a week from Tararua Health Group GPs, but since the end of last year, there has been no GP based at the clinic, which means patients must travel out of town for a GP consultation.

And while the Eketahuna community are proud of taking a community-led approach to healthcare, they would still love to have a GP, Everlyne Chase, the health centre’s community co-ordinator, said.

“It’s sad Eketahuna doesn’t have a GP because we have patients who have to travel 40km to our nurse-led clinics,” she said.

“We give petrol vouchers to people so they can travel to a GP and our workers go out of their way to help, transporting patients to Pahiatua or helping out with a donation to the health shuttle so people don’t feel embarrassed about using it when they don’t have any money.

“In Eketahuna,we have a lot of elderly and very young people in our community, with a lot on low wages and we’ve found it really hard to get our GP back.”

Chase has asked Mark Wills, managing director of Omni Health, the majority shareholder in Tararua Health Group, how they aimed to combat a GP shortage and how they saw the Eketahuna Health Centre attracting a GP to the town.

“Being able to resource the centre is a challenge,” Wills said.

“Some of the solutions for improving access will involve us accessing people in their homes or at work. This will result in more convenient, more effective and more speedy outcomes.”

But Wills acknowledged this relied on people having a phone, and Dannevirke’s Mavis Mullins, a Connect Tararua member, said that raised a key point about connectivity in Tararua.

“We don’t have connectivity in our rural areas and we are fighting a real battle,” she said.

However, Mullins and other health professionals are keen to visit the Eketahuna Health Centre to learn more from their unique model of community care.

“Let’s go and check it out because we need to strengthen and share resources. It’s about innovation,” she said.

In the year ending June 2017, approximately 600 patients were seen at the centre, which has 1100 registered patients.

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