Health crisis

Frustration around the rural doctor shortage has spilled over with the community taking their anger to the streets of Wagga at a rally today (Wednesday October 30). Photo: freepik.com

“Minor tweeking” of health policy to address the doctor shortage across NSW is not the outcome sought by the Narrandera medical fraternity.

Last week’s call for the Federal Government to act on the doctor shortage by Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke, Member for Albury Justin Clancy and Member for Wagga Joe Girr has culminated in a protest rally by regional communities in Wagga today (Wednesday).

Narrandera Medical Centre executive director Liz Romeo was rallying the troops to attend the protest, saying the government’s Stronger Rural Health Strategy was “not telling us anything new”.

“These strategies have been in place for a long time and have not provided the outcomes that had been hoped for,” Mrs Romeo said. “Minor tweeking is not new policy. It is just maintenance.”

Frustration around the rural doctor shortage has spilled over in Tumut where the hospital is without doctors five days a week, with the community taking their anger to the streets of Wagga.

Member for Murray Helen Dalton, Shadow Minister for Health Kate Washington and Dr Joe Girr will be guest speakers at today’s rally, which will be attended by representatives from Narrandera, Leeton and Griffith.

Tumut Community Association president Col Locke said the Murrumbidgee Local Health District was determined to continue employing GPs to cover on-call for hospitals.

“The MLHD and the NSW Government appear to be implementing a Rural Generalist training program which means GPs are required to gain additional qualifications and taken on even more work,” Mr Locke said. “MLHD talk of having nurses with advanced skills and telehealth in emergency departments as an answer to no doctors.”

Narrandera Shire Council mayor Neville Kschenka and general manager George Cowan have met with Steph Cooke, Dr Joe and Mrs Elizabeth Romeo to discuss initiatives.

Council has made submissions to both the State and Federal Government on the need to introduce changes to the current legislation to encourage doctors to go into rural areas.

Economic Development Manager Peter Dale is co-ordinating a meeting for the establishment of a Narrandera Health Alliance to bring all the relevant players to the table to address this issue.

“It is really important that residents encourage the local federal member to make changes that will support more doctors coming into towns like Narrandera,” Mr Dale said.

The rural generalist training builds on the maturation of the regional clinical schools based in Wagga Wagga and Griffith, the establishment of training hubs and increasing local recruitment of graduate doctors who are tending to select local referral hospitals to undertake their hospital training after completing medical school.

Dr McGirr said the package was ready to roll out, giving graduate doctors a clear career pathway, with ongoing employment based in the regional area they trained. But he believes debates over Medicare cost-shifting between State and Federal government departments are effectively blocking it from being implemented.

Liz Romeo said the Narrandera Medical Centre was advised of the program planned for interns about two years ago.

“We were asked if we would participate by taking junior doctors. We agreed to this,” she said. “I understand the program is ready to run but funding has not been forthcoming.

“We have not been told whether there would be any renumeration for the supervision of these doctors. This is a matter that needs to be addressed.

“Despite this, we committed to helping out because we believe exposing junior doctors to rural general practice is important.

“The work and skills required are very different to the understanding of general practice held particularly by those in the city, but also including our own specialty organisation – the RACGP.

“Life and community in rural areas is very different to what is perceived by those who have never lived here.”

According to MLHD, the service wants doctors in hospitals as much as the regional communities. Chief executive Jill Ludford said MLHD was redesigning the way it provided sustainable and safe medical services to rural patients.

“GPs are the only specialists with the breadth of knowledge and skills to provide all the services required in a rural hospital. Some of these doctors need to have advanced skills in anaesthesia, obstetrics and emergency medicine,” Ms Ludford said. “As we work through tailored options with each community’s existing medical staff, we ask the communities work with us to make their towns attractive to new doctors.”

Ms Ludford said different employment options have been finalised and the District would always ensure the town’s GP services were sustained.

The District has partnered with the Murrumbidgee Medical Training Hub (MMTH) of University of NSW to develop a rural GP training pathway that aims to recruit and retain GPs in rural practice.

“This model had a number of benefits including continuity of care and retention of obstetric and surgical services in smaller towns,” Ms Ludford said. “The pathway starts in undergraduate years, increasing exposure to rural practice from medical school through to the early intern and Junior Medical Officer (JMO) years.

“This ensures they have professional specialist support and mentoring when they move out of hospital practice, and remain involved with the referral services at the larger Base and Rural Referral hospitals.”

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