A shortage of general practitioners in Ballarat could have drastic impacts on the city’s health outcomes if the federal government does not make urgent changes, a medical professional has told The Courier.
The professional, who asked to remain anonymous, says more than 200 people a day are being turned away from a medical clinic in Ballarat due to a doctor shortage, and patients are left with nowhere to turn.
“They can't get into a private practice and shouldn't go to the emergency department and are being told they can’t see a doctor at walk-in clinics,” they said.
“I know one lady who gets chronic urinary tract infections which is quickly cleared up by antibiotics that she sees a general practitioner for.
“She tried to go to three other practices before a walk-in clinic and couldn’t get in anywhere. There was nothing she could do.
“The infection could get out of control and she can’t get any help.
“You can imagine how irate people are getting.”
I feel helpless. As healthcare professionals we have a duty of care.Medical professional
Earlier this month The Courier reported a new resident with an ongoing medical condition had struggled to find a general practitioner in Ballarat that was taking new patients.
After calling medical practices in December, she was repeatedly told they were not accepting new patients, due to an already “heavy influx of patients”.
The Rural Workforce Agency Victoria, which lists vacancies for regional health jobs, shows 54 positions are currently available for general practitioners and allied health workers in Western Victoria.
The federal government funds the network of agencies in each state to help communities that experience difficulties in attracting and retaining health professionals.
A Department of Health spokesperson told The Courier in a statement the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria had not informed the department of any issues in Ballarat. However the department has now asked them to investigate any issues in the town, the statement read.
But the Ballarat medical professional said there needed to be change at government-level to entice doctors to live and work in regional areas.
“Change needs to happen, whether that is tax concessions for doctors who choose to live and work in regional areas or an increase in Medicare rebate they get paid per patient or certain rules that allow more overseas doctors to practice in Australia,” they said.
“I feel helpless. As healthcare professionals we have a duty of care. I know there is a doctor shortage, but I feel this can be fixed through changes at government-level and making health in regional areas, especially huge centres that service a lot of surrounding districts, a priority. I feel like it isn’t a priority at the moment.
“I feel like we are forgotten about. Too many people live in this town to be forgotten about.”
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Associate Professor Julian Rait visited Ballarat in October last year and told The Courier a lack of specialists and a shortage of GPs were among the key priorities identified in the lead-up to the November state election.
“We have very good public hospitals and good infrastructure in regional towns but the problem, the challenge, is attracting and retaining staff,” he said.
Better access to professional development, building skills through better links with regional hospitals, state government target subsidies for provision of certain services, and support for mental health care, drug and alcohol support, maternal and family planning could all go some way to attracting more GPs, Assoc Prof Rait said.
He also urged the state government to advocate to their federal counterparts on the Medicare rebate freeze, which has reduced the income of regional GPs.
Assoc Prof Rait said a shortage of GPs in regional areas was contributing to poor health outcomes among regional Victorians.
“What is a real concern to the AMA is that life expectancy is going backwards in parts of regional Victoria, which is almost unprecedented. We are seeing things decline particularly for rural women with heart disease, arthritis, cancer, obstetrics, anxiety and depression … and the shortage of GPs probably contributes to those,” he said.
“We have a very good health system but we have differences in access particularly for patients in rural and regional Victoria.
“If we want regional centres to thrive and want to decentralise cities there needs to be adequate health care.”
The call for change comes as City of Ballarat deals with a number of planning applications for GP and allied health clinic developments in the region.
The Courier contacted Federal Member for Ballarat and Shadow Health Minister Catherine King for comment, but has not received a response.