By Colin MacGillivray

WALLAN medical clinics are banding together to apply for an exemption to the federal Department of Health’s classification of the town as a non-distribution priority area, DPA, for doctors.

Representatives from several Wallan clinics last week addressed a Federal Government senate inquiry into the provision of general practitioners, GP, and related primary health services to outer metropolitan, rural, and regional areas.

The inquiry heard Wallan’s classification as a non-DPA by the Department of Health in 2019, along with a change that saw the town assume metropolitan rather than regional status, contributed to a shortage of GPs.

Wallan Family Practice manager Julie Briggs described losing DPA status and being reclassified as a metropolitan area as a ‘double whammy’.

“In recent years we’ve seen a huge increase in population, with several new housing estates being built in the immediate Wallan township and also in surrounding towns such as Kilmore, Beveridge, Kalkallo and Broadford,” she said.

“As such, the need for healthcare facilities has increased. In our clinic alone … we’ve fielded over 170 calls in a three-month period from October to December last year from families new to the area that are looking for doctors.

“We can’t provide a waitlist for these patients wanting to attend our clinic, because we just don’t know if we’ll have any GPs in the coming months.

“[There are] some very real difficulties for us when recruiting general practitioners.”

Ms Briggs said not only was the clinic struggling to recruit new doctors after the reclassification of Wallan, but would lose one of its most popular GPs.

She said Dr Manda Hoghooghi, an overseas-trained doctor from Iran, had been with the clinic for five years as part of a training program but had a 10-year moratorium requiring her to work in a rural DPA area.

As a result, she said Dr Hoghooghi was forced to work in Gisborne despite wanting to remain in Wallan.

“She’s being taken from us. She’s going because she has to, not because she wants to,” Ms Briggs said.

“She has a very well established client base here at the clinic and is one of the very few female doctors in the Wallan township.”

Dr Selim Shubbar of Mediq Wallan Medical Clinic said attrition of the local GP workforce had a negative impact on those who remained.

“We were six doctors in the past; it’s now just me and another doctor,” he said.

“In the past, people used to be able to see me on the same day as making an appointment, at the most on the second day; now people have to wait five to seven days.

“This has caused a lot of inconvenience, and people now have to travel from Wallan to the Northern Health emergency department, which is about 50 kilometres away.”

Ms Briggs said Wallan clinics had joined forces to try request an exemption from the area’s non-DPA, giving them access to more GPs.

“In Wallan we have applied for an exception to the DPA status, which we haven’t been successful in as yet,” she said.

“I think Mediq … submitted one last year as a sole practice, and now we’ve banded together to try to do it as a multiple practice exception. As yet we haven’t heard if that’s been successful.”

Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell, who pushed for the senate inquiry to hear evidence from Wallan doctors, said Wallan should be reclassified as a DPA as a matter of priority.

“It isn’t just that there are not enough GPs. Under an unfair government reclassification, Wallan is now not a DPA but designated a metropolitan area for the purposes of health services. The result of this cruel change is overseas-trained doctors cannot work here for the 10-year moratorium,” he said.

“We are losing very skilled practitioners that have been in the area for years due to this unfair rule change and we can’t replace them.

“Our existing doctors are struggling under a workload they cannot possibly maintain and patients are becoming frustrated.”
Wallan resident Melitta Hill said her family had all been patients at Wallan Family Practice but were now struggling to make appointments.

“My husband is a shift worker … [and] he often can’t get in to see a doctor, so he’s moved to follow one of the doctors who has left to a clinic in Brunswick,” she said.

“When our doctor moved to Brunswick, myself and the kids moved to another doctor who is now having to leave [to work in a rural area].

“Short of having to travel to Brunswick for a doctor’s appointment like my husband, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do.”

Ms Hill’s husband and children are Aboriginal, and she said lack of access to GPs would complicate already complex health matters for the local Aboriginal population.

“With Aboriginal communities, there are more health issues that need to be monitored from an earlier age,” she said.

“My son is coming up to 18 [years old], and from 18 there are a whole lot of different health checks he has to have. Not being able to see a doctor is not what we want.”

Ms Hill described the situation as ‘quite desperate’.

“When you’re unwell and you ring to get a doctor’s appointment, being told there is a five or six week wait is not what you want to be hearing,” she said.

“We really need the support here, and being classified as metro is ridiculous. I can’t get my family to travel up here; they think they’re travelling to the bush.”