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'Successful training programme helps secure in-demand perfusionists' for Waikato DHB

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Waikato DHB is future-proofing its training programme for a medical profession which is in extremely high demand, yet so unknown it once appeared as a question on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?'

Britney Westbrook recently graduated from the Australian and New Zealand College of Perfusionists [ANZCP] as the DHB's first in-house trained perfusionist in over 12 years.

She took home three major awards- at the ANZCP’s 37th Annual Scientific Meeting in November, where she was also elected as Registrar of ANZCP's six-person Executive Committee.

Perfusionists are an integral part of heart surgery, running the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, also known as the heart-lung machine. The machine temporarily keeps blood circulating while the surgical team works on the patient's heart.

They are also involved in delivering chemotherapy to patients with advanced cancers. Waikato DHB is unique in New Zealand as the only hospital offering this treatment to patients with abdominal and thoracic cancer.

There are fewer than 140 certified perfusionists across Australasia, six of whom are at Waikato Hospital.

Cardiothoracic Surgery Clinical Director David McCormack says the department committed to providing its own training programme around two-and-a-half years ago to help address a major shortage of perfusionists across Australasia.

The team provides cardiothoracic care for the Midland Region with approximately 600 procedures undertaken a year which require a perfusionist.

Just 12 people applied for the initial intake, including Ms Westbrook, and it was only by chance she stumbled upon the profession.

Having first completed a BSc in Pharmacology at the University of Auckland, she was offered the opportunity to explore some of the many roles available at the hospital.

"I came across perfusion and thought 'Wow, what's that massive machine? That looks amazing.’ They're keeping the patient alive and that hooked me from the start," she said.

She began volunteering with the team once a week and when the trainee position opened up she was "over the moon, to say the least".

The DHB's co-chief perfusionists Jack Bhana and Emma Peplow led the two-year training programme on top of delivering care to the growing Midland population.

The programme has been such a success, Ms Westbrook is now assisting in the training of a second recruit who was chosen from a group of around 70 applicants.

Mr McCormack attributes the significant increase in applications to a growing awareness of perfusion as well as the strong reputation of the team at Waikato Hospital.

The team has also been busy across Waikato promoting the profession by demonstrating the heart-lung machine and creating awareness around heart disease with a two-pronged approach, recently to the public, at the Waikato Fieldays in 2019 and as part of the 'Science Spinners' Science Trust programme which introduces Year 9 and 10 students from low decile schools to less common careers in science.

Mr McCormack says the training programme allows the DHB to become more self-sufficient when it comes to building and retaining its workforce of staff perfusionists.

"A lot of perfusionists in Australasia are recruited offshore because Australasia does not have enough training centres. As a department, Waikato Cardiothoracic Unit is keen to do our bit," he says.

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