GPs are working overtime to see a growing list of patients waiting for appointments as a rural doctor shortage intensifies.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

Wallan’s general practitioner shortage is likely to persist after its status as a non-distribution priority area, non-DPA, was renewed on July 1.

DPA status, which identifies maldistribution of GPs across Australia, allows an area to employ doctors normally subject to location restrictions, such as international medical graduates.

Without a DPA status, clinics in Wallan have told the Review they struggle to employ GPs or incentivise doctors to travel to the area for work.

Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell spoke to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt about the doctor shortage across the Mitchell, Macedon Ranges and Whittlesea areas, pleading for urgent action as wait times for appointments grow, and patients are deferred to hospitals for treatment.

“So many people have told me they’ve had to wait weeks for an appointment to see a local doctor or they’ve been referred out of the area for medical help,” Mr Mitchell said.

“But the Liberal Nationals Coalition Government is basically turning its back on us and refusing to acknowledge the critical doctor shortages our communities are facing every day across many of our towns.

“Mr Hunt defends this stubborn refusal a under a complex set of rules that put the town of Wallan in a classification so automatically we’re cut out of opportunities that could help in the recruitment and retention of more doctors.”

In response to Mr Mitchell’s pleas, a Department of Health spokesperson told the Review that Wallan’s classification was backed up by data.

“As at 1 July 2021, the town of Wallan is classified as non-DPA as it has been assessed as having 10 per cent above the benchmark for of healthcare access, which has been set by looking across Australian communities,” the spokesperson said.

“This means there are many other communities with lower access to health services, compared with Wallan, and overseas trained doctors are currently prioritised to those other communities.”

The non-DPA classification, which has applied to Wallan since 2019, is updated annually on July 1.

“DPA status does not guarantee a doctor, but it does allow practices to recruit from a larger pool of doctors to increase access to GP services,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

Mr Mitchell said the government was responsible for the GP workforce and delivery of primary care services, including the classification of regional and rural areas for the purposes of provision of healthcare worker incentives and subsidies, while Mr Hunt is responsible for Commonwealth programs that can increase the supply of doctors across Victoria.  

The department spokesperson said the government was addressing the nationwide rural doctor shortage by investing significantly in better access to health services through the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, SRHS.

“While the government does not play a direct role in employing health professionals, it funds a range of programs to recruit and retain health professionals in rural Australia and improve access to health services for regional, rural and remote communities,” they said.

“The $550 million SRHS gives doctors more opportunities to train and practise in rural and remote Australia, and incentivises nurses and allied health professionals to participate in multidisciplinary, team-based primary care.

“After the first two years, more than 700 additional GPs and 700 additional nurses are working in regional and remote areas.”

The government has also allocated $123 million over five years in health workforce programs in the 2021-22 federal budget.

But Mr Mitchell said population growth in the region, compounded with the pandemic and a COVID-19 vaccine program that put pressure on GPs, meant the shortage needed to be addressed with immediate action.

“It is beyond doubt that these communities urgently need more medical services,” Mr Mitchell said.

“The government uses statistics, technical classifications, legislation and regulations to decide who can go where, but for our communities, it’s little more than jargon that is so far from our reality, it’s not funny,” he said.

Under the government’s Monash Medical Model classification model, updated at the start of the new financial year, Wallan is MM1 (metropolitan) and Kilmore is MM4 (medium rural town).