Doctors speak out about GP shortage as inquiry comes to Coast

GP shortage an ongoing issueGP shortage an ongoing issue

The first hearing of the Senate inquiry into the so-called GP shortage to be held outside of Canberra will take place on the Central Coast on December 14.

Details are thin on the ground, however, a hearing is scheduled at Erina Leagues Club for 11am on that date.

The program, available online, is currently blank.

It was originally thought that speakers would dial-in to speak at an online conference and it is not yet clear which geographic areas will be called upon to participate in the hearing.

Chairperson of the Central Coast Community Women’s Health Centre, Robyn Moore, is on the list to speak at a hearing, although no concrete details have been issued by the Senate.

In August this year, the Senate referred an inquiry into the provision of GPs and related primary health services to outer metropolitan, rural, and regional Australians to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee for inquiry.

The inquiry came off the back of anecdotes among communities about GP shortages outside of the country’s main metropolitan areas.

Since the inquiry called for submissions, several local GPs and medical practitioners have confirmed that there is a GP shortage that has been fuelled by myriad issues.

Moore’s submission to the inquiry echoed community concerns and highlighted the difficulty women’s health centre has experienced when trying to recruit doctors.

“For the past three years we have been trying to recruit more GPs for our community practice as we knew that our long-serving GPs would be retiring, Moore said.

“During this period, we have advertised with the RACGP, Hunter New England Central Coast (HNECC) Primary Health Network (PHN), Facebook, Seek and specialist medical recruiters.

“The competition for GPs on the Central Coast has been very challenging as there have been increasing shortages for the past five years,” she explained.

The situation is complex and made more complicated by the rules and legislation that applies to the training and recruitment of doctors, both Australian-trained, and those who have trained overseas.

Changes to the governing rules began in 2018 and 2019, which exacerbated what were seen as already long-standing recruitment challenges.

One of those changes applied to the rules that allowed medical centres to sponsor overseas doctors and bring them into Australia.

The second was alterations made to the “distribution priority areas” (DPA) which allowed practices, in the face of shortages, to recruit international doctors.

A DPA, an area officially recognised as having a shortage, can only be applied when it is outside what is known as a ‘MM1’ – there being seven MM levels across the country in total.

MM stands for Modified Monash (Model) and MM1 is metropolitan.

The Central Coast has been classified as an MM1 area, meaning it is unable to reap the benefits of a DPA status.

Northern parts of the Coast including Budgewoi and Toukley were given DPA status until it was pulled in 2019.

Dr Shamila Beattie is a GP and business owner in Blue Haven who has made a detailed submission to the inquiry.

“We were designated to be in a district of workforce shortage and in addition to the usual recruitment pathways, we were eligible to sponsor overseas trained doctors similar to ourselves.

“This system worked well and by 2019 we had five full-time GPs and one part time servicing over 8,000 patients,” she explained.

“Due to changes in the government policy, we are no longer eligible to sponsor overseas trained doctors or deemed to be in a Distribution Priority Area (DPA).

“This change to policy has had a catastrophic effect to our local community as we are no longer able to provide the service they want or deserve.

“We have to turn away new patients every day as all of our GPs have closed their books.

“We have a minimum of one week to see a doctor and at least 10 people on our cancellation list every day.”

Dr Brad Cranney operates four medical centres on the Coast including at Toukley, Warnervale and Tuggerah.

In his submission he explained that he would lose doctors over the next five years as they approached retirement.

“We cannot survive without the ability to hire overseas doctors,” he said.

“Patients in the community are waiting weeks to get an appointment with their GP and we are turning away 60 patients a day.

“We need to train more medical students in Australian universities and rotate them to general practices outside of capital cities as part of their tertiary education.”

Cranney is calling for the reinstatement of the DPA for the northern part of the Central Coast and other regional practices across Australia.

Submissions also point to issues surrounding a freezing of Medicare rebates and a reduction on the Central Coast of bulk billing rebates to match those of Greater Sydney.

It is the committee’s intention to report back by the end of March 2022.

Nicola Riches