A lack of doctors in Narrandera has been a source of ongoing frustration for residents.
For the most vulnerable in our community, it can mean long waits for medical care, frequent trips to Wagga, or simply forging treatment all together.
So why does this town struggle to attract and retain doctors? What’s being done to address the problem? Is there anything the community can do to help?
While doing a stint for the Narrandera Argus journalist Oliver Jacques met with Dr Joe Romeo and his wife Liz from the Narrandera Medical Centre to try and shed some light on this issue.
Has there always been a doctor shortage in Narrandera? In the 25 years that Dr Romeo has been practicing here, he said there’s been a shortage of doctors in all but eight of those years.
“We’ve struggled a lot in the last two years in particular,” he said. What aren’t doctors choosing to come to Narrandera?
“There is less desire for Australian trainee doctors to come to the country… in all the time I’ve been here, we’ve only had about two or three Australian-trained doctors… the rest have been from overseas,” Dr Romeo said.
While there’s a requirement for doctors to do a stint in “areas of need”, coastal locations like Kiama are preferred to towns further away from big cities. Mrs Romeo said that even if a doctor wants to live here, their partner may not.
“It’s hard to get a couple who both want to move and stay in Narrandera.”
She said the lack of nearby private schools and universities deters families with children. Are there any other barriers? Excessive government regulation is also a problem.
“There’s a lot of red tape… that can stop qualified doctors from working,” Dr Romeo said. This is particularly the case for overseas-trained doctors.
“People don’t realise how much time we have to spend on paperwork… sometimes I have to spend an entire day getting things organised for a doctor trying to come here,” Mrs Romeo said. Information-sharing across NSW is also a problem.
“If a doctor from Orange wants to come here, they have to re-submit all their all their qualifications again… even though all that information is already online,” Dr Romeo said.
Mrs Romeo said there was a need for streamlining and a centralised state-wide database that enables practices to access information on doctor qualifications.
“Even if we get a doctor who is ready to come, there is six weeks of paperwork before we can get them here,” she said.
When you do get doctors here, do they want to stay? Dr Romeo said doctors who do come to Narrandera often don’t last that long.
“These days, doctors are 27 or 28 by the time they’ve finished training. By then, you’ve often made life decisions about your future.”
By 27, medical practitioners may already be married or own a house in other city. So they’re unlikely to want to put down roots here.
“I’m the only doctor here that actually owns a house in Narrandera,” he said.
What incentives can be put in place to encourage more doctors to come and stay here? While government does dangle a few carrots to attract GPs to the country, Dr Romeo said most initiatives have not been effective.
“So far, nothing has really made a difference,” he said. Doctors may be eligible for an extra allowance if they spend more than two years in rural areas, but that doesn’t seem to encourage them to stay.
Dr Romeo suggested treating procedural GPs more like specialists could help. He said often doctors in the country have to carry out many specialist functions.
“When you come to places like Narrandera, you are on the frontline… you have to respond to emergencies at say 2am… GPs in the city don’t always [have the same pressures]… so why would they come here?”
He also said recent initiatives to relocate medical colleges to country areas might work, as it means doctors could establish social networks and find partners in rural areas from a young age.
Is there anything the community can do to help? Mrs Romeo asks for understanding from patients; wanting them to know the practice is doing the best they can in the face of a tough situation.
Sometimes though, patients can compound problems.
“On average, 10 patients per day fail to attend their appointment,” she said. This creates stress for staff already juggling mountains of paperwork.
She also points out many doctors come to Narrandera without family, and for them the town can be quite a lonely place.
“It’s important for local people to make new doctors feel welcome in the town. After all, we want and need them to stay.”