Some U.S. doctors flee to New Zealand where the outbreak is under control and science is respected

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media at a press conference ahead of a nationwide

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media at a press conference ahead of a nationwide lockdown at Parliament on March 25, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Hagen Hopkins | Getty Images

Dr. Judy Melinek knew it was time to make a change when she started fear for her health and safety.

While working as acting chief forensic pathologist for Alameda County in California, she read early reports about a virus in Wuhan, China. By June, after repeatedly sounding the alarm about the need for health workers to have sufficient personal protective equipment, she’d had enough. She also hoped for temperature checks, social distancing and masks, but she noticed that not all of the staff in her office were taking these steps.

And then an email appeared offering her the opportunity to relocate to New Zealand, a country that has reported less than 2,000 coronavirus cases and 25 deaths, drawing widespread praise from around the world for its science-led response. Melinek jumped at the opportunity. 

After a period of quarantine, she’s now living and working in Wellington City, New Zealand. She’s been impressed so far. “There’s a lot more respect for the government and for science here,” she said. 

Melinek is part of a wave of U.S. doctors plotting a move to New Zealand. A spokesperson for Global Medical Staffing, a recruitment group that helps doctors find short and long-term positions around the world, noted that inquiries have increased about relocating to New Zealand from the U.S. as more physician jobs have been affected during the pandemic. In addition, more physicians currently employed in New Zealand who already located are choosing to extend their contracts “because of fewer reported cases of Covid-19,” meaning that there’s a slight dip in open roles. 

Melinek has been open about her decision on social media, and has subsequently heard from half dozen of her peers considering doing the same. She expects the number to keep rising as the pandemic continues. “America will suffer an exodus of professionals to other countries that have responded better, with economies that have recovered faster,” she said. 

In the the United States, where the federal government has largely left the response for the pandemic up to the states, more than 213,000 people have died from the virus. Across the country, some states have largely reopened, despite recent surges in cases. An outbreak that tore throughout the White House has spread to at least 37 people, including President Donald Trump, according to a website tracking the infections. 

New Zealand, by contrast, recently declared victory over the virus after eradicating community spread for the second time. 

In addition, many public health workers and scientists based in the United States say they have faced online harassment and threats while sharing guidance to the public about measures to keep them safe, including masks and social distancing. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly praised scientists, and offered empathy to the public at the most trying times, including during the early lockdown. 

New Zealand is also a practical choice. It presents an attractive prospect for many doctors and nurses because the country tends to fill many of its openings with overseas workers. It’s known for making it relatively easy for clinicians to start treating patients in a matter of months, although that can vary depending on the role, assuming they have all proof of their training and credentials. And then there’s the beautiful weather and scenery. 

‘I’ve been watching how they do it’

Dr. Ryan Radecki also made the move from Oregon to New Zealand during the pandemic after seeing an opening for an emergency medicine doctor at Christchurch Hospital, a large research and teaching hospital in the South Island. 

A big part of the appeal for him is that New Zealand has started reopening schools, so Radecki’s kids can return to in-person education. It’s also an opportunity to experience a health care system with universal coverage. “I’m happy to be working in a system that provides world-class care,” he said. “We spent more in the U.S., and our outcomes aren’t better, so I’ve been watching how they do it.”

Dr. Radecki isn’t certain how long he’ll stay in the country, adding that depends on the outcome of the U.S. election. He’s become increasingly concerned about misinformation about the virus that he’s seeing in the United States.

“You see so many people downplaying it back home, perpetuating the spread of the virus in crowded bars, while physicians are suffering,” he said. 

Dr. Kris Sargent, a rural family physician currently working in Alaska, joked about needing an escape route for years before applying for a contract role in New Zealand. He would consider moving there permanently, but is still paying off debt from medical school in the U.S. and doctors don’t get paid quite as well in New Zealand. Medical school also tends to be cheaper there. 

It didn’t take long before Sargent heard that he’d got the job. Starting in January, after a period of quarantine, he’ll be the physician on call in a town called Katikati with about 4,700 residents. What he’s looking forward to most is a break from the “anti-science philosophy” he has experienced in the U.S., particularly since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Moreover, many of his patients are low income and struggle to afford care. 

“I couldn’t help them the way I wanted to, given the fear that so many of them have about going bankrupt, and all the time we have to spend babysitting insurance companies,” he said. 

His colleague, Susan Goodwin, is a nurse who made the move to New Zealand back in February before returning to the U.S.. She said the planning and preparation took about 10 months, so she had hoped to be there for at least a year, but she made the difficult decision to come home at the start of the pandemic to care for her parents.

In her short time in the country, Goodwin said she felt better equipped to take care of critically ill patients simply because she had more time to do so. In the U.S., she’s often caring for at least two intensive care patients at once, and sometimes more. In New Zealand, it was only one patient. “Every system has its strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “I personally found it a better run system in that everyone was able to access healthcare without fear of financial ruin.”

‘A lot of us are disillusioned’

For John Daniel, a pediatrician based in Missouri, moving to New Zealand would be an opportunity to take a break from the U.S. health care system. He treats “sick babies and sick kids,” and has watched many of his patients dealing with the crushing burden of medical bills. In addition to that, he fears a rollback of reproductive rights. 

On a personal note, he also spends far more hours in the day than he cares to haggling with insurance companies. “It’s the corporatization of medicine,” he said. “A lot of my time is spent on the phone with insurers calling us to say they think the kid is ready for discharge, while we say they are sick and it’s too soon for them to be pushed out the door.” 

Moving to New Zealand, where public hospitals are free of charge, would present a welcome change for Daniel, he said. The island nation offers universal health care, plus a public option. Many locals also have some form of private insurance. 

He may someday be joined by Dr. Shikha Jain, who previously worked in New Zealand with her husband as a locums tenens, or physicians who fill in for other physicians on a temporary basis.

Dr. Jain has talked about her experience online and says many of her colleagues have reached out recently to get advice on relocation.

“There’s many more talking about it now than even 5 or 10 years ago,” she said. 

For now, she said she plans to stay in the United States to advocate for change to the current system. In her view, the pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with the status quo, including the gaps in coverage and the lack of protections for the most vulnerable. 

But she understands the reasons why her fellow health care workers are considering fleeing overseas during the pandemic. “A lot of us are disillusioned and feel under-appreciated because we’re expected to put our life at risk, but we didn’t even have enough protective equipment to keep us safe,” she said. 

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