Retiring rural doctors are needing replacement in greater numbers than in past generations as a younger workforce emphasises work-life balance, a group for rural doctors says.
This, along with other workforce challenges, has led some rural and regional public hospitals and health centres, which have relied on GPs from local practices, to depend more on locum doctors.
But groups representing medical workers say they want more than temporary solutions to plug gaps and to avert doctor shortages.
A federal senate inquiry is examining shortages of GPs and other health workers in outer metropolitan, rural and regional areas, with a report due in March next year.
Rural Doctors Association of Australia chief Peta Rutherford said as older doctors retired, their younger successors had a narrower breadth of advanced skills.
State-based hospital systems are also focusing more on managing workforce fatigue and doctors are expecting work-life balance, she said.
“The concept of a single-doctor town, we are starting to move away from,” Rutherford said.
“It’s not a one for one replacement. In some of our communities we are looking at a one-to-two replacement, or a one-to-three,” Rutherford said.
She said innovative funding models continued to offer solutions as governments and communities addressed doctor shortages in rural and regional areas.
“If you were just dealing with one level of government that would help,” Rutherford said.
“But when you have the hospital system funded by the state, and primary care funded by the federal government; that does create a real challenge.
“We see a single employer option for rural generalists as worthwhile.”
The Australian Medical Association on Tuesday announced a new position on integrating GPs into rural hospitals. President Omar Khorshid expressed concerns regional hospitals were employing locums when GPs could staff hospitals.
“The best model for our communities is where the talent and expertise in local rural general practice is harnessed by local hospitals and remunerated through the hospital system, while the [Medicare Benefits Schedule] covers GPs’ work in their practices,” Khorshid said.
The AMA has called for rural GPs and generalists to be involved in decision making, and for national consistency on what rural generalists can perform.
It also wants health services to have models of employment with standard conditions for GPs and rural generalists, and for telehealth not to directly replace face-to-face services.
Asked about the ongoing legacy of doctor shortages facing regional Australia earlier this month, the federal government’s regional health minister David Gillespie said efforts were focused on training.
“In 2018, we launched another $550 million Stronger Rural Health Strategy. Part of that was expanding the Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training program, which gets med students, nurses, physios into rural clinical schools around the country.” he said.
“When we make these changes the benefits take a few years to work through the system. But I’ve got many other plans in place, and policies we’re working up, to make a material difference.”