doctor shortage - 2ST

More medical problems in Bay and Basin area

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Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling for the Bay and Basin area to be included as a Priority Distribution Area so it can attract overseas-trained doctors to work in medical clinics.

Dr Kate Manderson is on the verge of closing her Sanctuary Point Clinic because she can’t attract any Australian doctors and is unable to employ any of the overseas-trained medicos who want to work in the centre, due to a recent decision not to include the region as a Priority Distribution Area.

She said while the petition was a first step, she needed people to tell politicians about their problems getting to see a doctor.

“This petition isn’t going to change everything, it’s going to be one of a lot of things that will have to come together to make a difference to this situation,” Dr Manderson said.

“We need people to keep telling their story about how difficult it is to find a doctor that they can trust and they can work with to look after them.”

The Health Department denied the Bay and Basin Priority Distribution Area rating because it said there were enough doctors in the region to meet benchmarks endorsed by a range of rural health experts.

However Dr Manderson said that denied the reality of the number of people calling medical centres trying to get appointments, only to be told there were none available.

“Our receptionists are getting phone calls from people – perhaps they’re new to the area, or they want to change their GP for whatever reason, some women want to see a female GP to look after some of their problems and the practice that they’re at can’t offer that,” she said.

“We’re getting phone calls every day, dozens a day, ‘Please, please can your doctors see us?’ and we just have to say no, our books are closed, we’re not taking new patients, we just need to look after the patients that are already on our books.

“People are really distraught - they can’t see a doctor, their kids are sick.

“Even a simple thing like a certificate for work, if they’re waiting at home for a COVID test, they just can’t get a doctor, and it’s just not good enough for the Department of Health to say there are enough doctors down here.”

Dr Manderson said the next step was for people to write to the Health Minister Greg Hunt and Gilmore MP Fiona Phillips about the situation.

“I really would encourage people to share their stories with the local MP, with Fiona Phillips, and also with minister Hunt to say it’s just not good enough- we need more doctors in the Shoalhaven, that’s it.”

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New hope for extra doctors in Shoalhaven

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Hopes of attracting more doctors to the Shoalhaven under Distribution Priority Area changes have been boosted through personal contact from former Gilmore MP Ann Sudmalis.

Shoalhaven Family Medical Centres practice principal Annette Pham said her practices had been unable to replace 12 doctors they had lost in the past two years, and mentioned this to Mrs Sudmalis while giving her a COVID vaccine.

It turned out Mrs Sudmalis was a close friend of the new Regional Health Minister David Gillespie, and she wrote to the minister including a copy of the latest approach by Mrs Pham.

She said Dr Gillespie's response was quick and positive.

"Last night I got a letter back from Dr David Gillespie, who's the minister for regional health, and he's just recently been appointed to that position, so we have fresh eyes, and it was a very positive letter," Mrs Pham said.

It included an assurance Dr Gillespie that he wanted the Distribution Priority Area criteria reviewed and reassessed.

"I have asked that the review be ambitious in its intent, open to innovative think and broadly consultative to ensure that concerns are addressed," Dr Gillespie wrote.

He expected the report to be finalised before the end of the year and, "I will move quickly to address any recommendations."

"He indicates that he's going to review the DPA system to consider our situation here in the Shoalhaven, but not just in the Shoalhaven, this will be a country-wide review and comes at the same time as the Senate inquiry into GP shortages," Mrs Pham said.

Several Shoalhaven medical centres have spoken about problems they face employing doctors under DPA restrictions, with one medical centre in the Bay and Basin area being on the verge of shutting its doors.

A petition organised by Gilmore MP Fiona Phillips recently helped secure a Senate inquiry into doctor shortages in rural and regional areas.

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Review to address Shoalhaven's doctor shortage

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Regional Health Minister David Gillespie has announced a review of the process that determines if regions can employ extra internationally trained doctors.

Several local medical practices have complained about being unable to replace doctors who have retired or moved away, because of the way Distribution Priority Areas are determined.

Without gaining Distribution Priority Area status, medical practices are unable to employ overseas-trained doctors because they are not eligible for Medicare rebates.

Yet medical practices in regional areas say they are unable to employ Australian-trained doctors because many are unwilling to work in rural or regional areas.

Dr Gillespie acknowledged the continuing problem when he said, "We know there's too many doctors in the city and not enough in the country."

That inbalance demonstrated the need for a review, which Dr Gillespie said would cut through red tape and enable quick changes to the system.

"I've initiated an exceptional circumstances review process so that these non-DPA areas can have a speedy assessment, and see if the on-the-ground up to date figures really do reflect a scarcity of medical services," he said.

Along with a review of the system, Regional Health Minister David Gillespie said individual clinics and medical practices could also apply for an immediate review of their status.

He said a decision made about one medical practice would automatically apply to all others in the area.

And Dr Gillespie guaranteed a quick response when medical centres said they were struggling to meet the needs of patients due tio doctor shortages, even if that contradicted official figures.

"Whether there's been an exodus of doctors, or whether there's been a flood of new people in such that access is not satisfactory, it is a process that will be turned around quickly so that we can interrogate what's actually happening and get a better outcome," he said.

"There have been a lot of problems accessing services in regional Australia."

However Dr Gillespie warned gaining Distribution Priority Area status was not a panacea, and instead it just made a larger pool of doctors available to a medical practice.

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Senate inquiry to look at Shoalhaven doctor shortage

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The doctor shortage across the Gilmore electorate will be examined in a senate inquiry.

Federal Member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips, was front and centre in Labor’s backing for the inquiry.

“We need practical, positive solutions to make sure Australians have access to quality health care regardless of where they live,” she argued.

“The GP shortage issue in my electorate is at crisis point.

“In the Bay and Basin area alone, we have seen seven doctors retire, with the one remaining doctor at the Sanctuary Point Medical Centre also retiring soon and no replacement in sight,” Mrs Phillips said.

“The shortage of GPs is certainly not limited to the Bay and Basin area, definitely throughout the Shoalhaven, particularly around Nowra and Worrigee there are increasing demands given the elderly population.”

“A lack of doctors and other medical professionals across Australia is not a new problem, but a series of government decisions and the pandemic means it really is time to spotlight this critical issue before people are left with no healthcare options in their community.

“We’ve seen, for example, one practice where they had 13 GPs go down to five, so this is a really huge issue, particularly with the elderly population that we have an of course the COVID pandemic as well,” Mrs Phillips said.

When medical centres in the Bay and Basin area were in danger of closing because they could not attract doctors, much of the discussion centred on priority distribution area declarations that could make it easier to attract new doctors.

Mrs Phillips said changes to the priority distribution area system were needed.

“The issue with the formula that they use is it doesn’t really take into account the demographics of the area, whether there’s public transport and things like that,” she said.

Submissions to the inquiry into the provision of GP services within regional, rural, and outer metropolitan areas are now open.

The inquiry will examine policies such as the Rural Health Strategy, reforms to distribution priority areas and the Modified Monash Model geographical classification system.

To make a submission visit: www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/PrimaryHealthServices

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