Family medicine physician Dr. Phyllis Dunckel has been working locum tenens in New Zealand for the past year and a half on her first international assignment. Her only regret? That she didn’t take this leap sooner. Here’s what she has to say about practicing family medicine in New Zealand.
Q: Why did you decide to go?
Dr. Dunckel: I had always wanted to travel to New Zealand, and it just seemed to be the right time. My son was close to graduating from high school, and I thought that he would soon be off in the world, so this was a great way to have an adventure together.
Q: Where is your assignment?
Dr. Dunckel: I’m on the North Island in a very rural area called Thames. It’s only a couple of hours drive from Auckland, but it’s quite different from Auckland. It’s a town of about 7,000-8,000 people, quite a unique mix of people, and we are the only game in town, so to speak, in terms of medical care. There is a small hospital and clinic that focuses on providing care exclusively for Maori people. We are the main clinic for everybody else.
Q: What has been challenging about the New Zealand healthcare system?
Dr. Dunckel: New Zealand is an amazing place, but it’s operating on what I would say is a shoestring budget. Lots of things that might seem reasonable and appropriate to me coming from America are just not available — or they’re available, but you have to wait an extended period to get them done. Learning all of that has been an ongoing process for me.
Q: What is the pace of life in New Zealand like compared to the U.S.?
Dr. Dunckel: It’s a different pace; there’s not nearly as many pressures on the typical family physician here as in America. For a long time, I think that my husband and I thought that we might want to stay indefinitely because we have really enjoyed being here so much.
Q: What are some of the recreational activities you’ve enjoyed while on assignment?
Dr. Dunckel: We travel a lot on both islands and have seen some really unusual places with active volcanic activity, like on White Island, which you can take a boat to and walk around on; there are steaming vents with precipitated sulfur all over the place. It’s a crazy experience. Another thing we did on the North Island was to go to a small area where manta rays come and breed and raise their young.
On the South Island, we’ve been to the very bottom, the most southern tip of New Zealand. We have seen some really cool caves down there, and we saw sea lions just hanging out on the beach. We went to a place called Doubtful Bay where there are probably 500 waterfalls. It’s just one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. We’ve snorkeled and surfed, too.
Q: What are you favorite memories?
Dr. Dunckel: I remember one hike that we did through Sikh farms. We got up really high and could see the ocean and the green of the pastures. It was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen here. It was really nice for me to be doing that with my husband and my son. There have been a lot of really special moments just getting to know people as well. What’s great about this kind of extended time is you get to know the people from another culture, and you get to know what their lives are like. That’s what made it different from just being a tourist.
Q: What was it like working with Global Medical Staffing to get the assignment and through all of the logistics?
Dr. Dunckel: It has been very positive. They’ve been generally very helpful, very receptive to my questions, very patient with trying to meet my needs. They’ve been lovely.
Q: What’s your advice for other doctors thinking about an international locums assignment?
Dr. Dunckel: Go for it. In retrospect I wish I had done it sooner in my career. It’s a really, really lovely chance to see a different culture and a different way of practicing family medicine in New Zealand — and you won’t get that if you travel as a tourist.
Kari Redfield is a professional content marketing writer. She also is a novelist and writes for newsstand magazines and has had work appear in publications such as Arizona Highways, Sedona Magazine, and American Fitness. And like the locums physicians profiled in these stories, she loves the flexibility and new experiences that her unique job provides, and loves to travel. She has been known to spend weeks in the U.S. West in her Aliner, checking out classic trad rock climbs, epic mountain bike rides, and other adventures while writing from the road.