By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

A shortage of general practitioners and a lack of community understanding of health services is causing problems for Mitchell Shire hospitals.

As reported in the Review last month, a shortage of GPs in Wallan is being exacerbated by its reclassification from a district of workforce shortage to a non-distribution priority area, like metropolitan Melbourne, making it harder for practices to employ doctors or encourage doctors to travel to Wallan for work.

Mitchell Shire patients are facing waiting times of two to four days or more due to understaffed practices, leaving many with a trip to a hospital as their only option when ill or injured.

Seymour Health’s urgent care centre has become significantly busier since 2019, which officials attribute to the GP shortage.

“It is gradually worsening; both anecdotally and on presentation numbers,” a hospital spokesperson said.

“Seymour Health urgent care centre presentations have increased overall, particularly this year. A lot of patients tell us they cannot get a doctor’s appointment.

“Presentations were up at Seymour Health by more than 50 per month from 2020, 2019 and last month; this is not including COVID testing.”

Kilmore District Health chief executive David Naughton said a shortage of GPs in regional areas nationwide was a ‘major ongoing issue’ Kilmore and many hospitals had to navigate.

“The way it impacts on hospitals is that you tend to have people coming to hospitals, which are for urgent settings or emergency settings, who should actually be accessing services in primary health or in GP health,” he said.

“We’re not there to provide a GP service so it does have an impact on both people who are vulnerable and people who, for whatever reason, can’t access a GP. So yes, it is a challenge and it’s an ongoing challenge that we’re aware of and working to try to make sure that we can provide the best service we can 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Neither Kilmore or Seymour hospitals have an emergency department, rather nurse-led urgent care centres.

Presenting patients are provided with an assessment and if they can be treated by a nurse they are, otherwise they must wait to be seen by a doctor if one is rostered, or triaged to another part of the hospital or to a hospital that has an emergency department, such as Northern Health in Epping.

“Prior to the current Melbourne lockdown, we were seeing approximately 340 patients per day in our emergency department,” Northern Health emergency physician Dr Loren Sher said.

Dr Sher said most of Nothern Health’s emergency patients were not suitable for GPs and required urgent care. But Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data showed while non-urgent presentations were low, they increased from 3365 in 2018-19 to 3741 in 2019-20.

Hospitals and emergency services were also affected by a lack of understanding among patients and the community about when urgent or emergency care was needed.

Ambulance Victoria regularly responds to calls when a patient could have been helped by a GP, pharmacist or the 24/7 Nurse on Call service on 1300 60 60 24.

“What is of concern is that 16 to 20 per cent of calls for assistance to triple zero do not need an emergency lights and sirens response,” an Ambulance Victoria spokesperson said.

“When an ambulance responds to a non-emergency call, it takes paramedics away from life-threatening emergencies.”

Mr Naughton said more work was needed to help the community understand when to call an ambulance or visit an emergency department or urgent care centre so that demand was managed.

“That’s a never-ending job really, to help improve health literacy and understanding in the community about what services are available,” he said.

The Ambulance Victoria spokesperson said Australia’s public health system was currently experiencing its highest growth in demand in 15 years.

With a small number of regional Victorian GPs serving a rapidly growing population, the Seymour Health spokesperson said people relied on hospitals and ambulances when they couldn’t see a GP.

“People in essence understand the different services offered, but when they cannot get a doctor’s appointment or cannot afford it, then they will use the health service,” they said.