Introduction: In countries such as New Zealand where there has been little community spread of COVID-19, psychological distress has been experienced by the population and by health workers. COVID-19 has caused changes in the model of care that is delivered in New Zealand general practice. It is unknown, however, whether the changes wrought by COVID-19 have resulted in different levels of strain between rural and urban general practices. This study aims to explore these differences from the impact of COVID-19.
Methods: This study is part of a four country collaboration (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) involving repeated cross-sectional surveys of primary care practices in each respective country. Surveys were undertaken at regular intervals throughout 2020 of urban and rural general practices throughout New Zealand. Five core questions were asked at each survey that related to experiences of strain, capacity for testing, stressors experienced, types of consultations being carried out and volumes of patients seen. Simple descriptive statistics were used to analyse the data.
Results: 1516 responses were received with 20% from rural practices. A moderate degree of strain was experienced by general practices, although rural practices appeared to experience less strain compared to urban ones. Rural practices had less staff off from work, were less likely to use alternative forms of consultations such as video consultations and telephone consultations and had possibly lower reductions in patient volumes. These variations might be related to personal characteristics of rural as compared to urban practices or different models of care.
Conclusion: New Zealand rural general practice appeared to have a different response to the COVID-19 pandemic compared to urban, illustrating the significant strengths and resilience of rural practices. While different experiences from COVID-19 might reflect differences in the demographics of the rural and urban general practice workforce, another proposition is that this difference indicates a rural model of care that is more adaptive compared to the urban one. This is consistent with the literature that rural general practice has the capacity to manage conditions in a different way to urban. While other comparable countries have demonstrated a unique rural model of care, less is known about this in New Zealand, adding weight to an argument to further define New Zealand rural general practice.