Pharmacists could help relieve Australia’s rural health care ‘crisis’, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia says, following reports of a ‘troubling’ doctor shortage in Ballarat and calls for a multifaceted solution.
Frustrated Ballarat residents have shared their desperate attempts to see a general practitioner, after The Courier reported more than 200 people a day were being turned away from a medical clinic during the summer holiday period.
They tell a common story of knock backs from multiple clinics that are fully booked or not taking new patients.
One Ballarat resident drove to a hospital in Geelong to seek medical help for her husband last week after he was refused an appointment by multiple medical clinics in Ballarat and told there was an eight hour wait at the hospital’s emergency department.
It is a dire situation in terms of GP recruitment.Lynne McLennan, UFS chief executive
Another resident with an ill one-year-old child was left feeling frustrated after three medical clinics told her they were fully booked on three consecutive days.
“I finally got my daughter in on Monday but she didn’t need to be seen anymore. They confirmed her rash was viral today after five days of illness already,” she said.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia Victorian president Anthony Tassone said the doctor shortage in Ballarat was ‘dire’ and reflected a general trend across the nation.
“It is clear there is a crisis – a crisis that pharmacists can help to address.”
A Ballarat pharmacist, who asked to remain anonymous, said community pharmacies were an important part of the health system that could play a bigger role to ensure all people had access to healthcare.
“We have the skills and training to do a lot more to ease the huge pressure our GP colleagues are facing,” the pharmacist said.
“Quite simply pharmacists need to be able to operate to their full scope of practice and governments in all jurisdictions must act on this as a matter of urgency.”
Mr Tassone told The Courier pharmacists in Australia could have an expanded role in delivering primary health care, like in a number of other Western countries.
"This can include delivering a range of vaccinations, chronic disease management and providing a continuous supply of medicines that are used to treat chronic conditions," he said.
“This is of benefit for patients if there is difficulty in accessing a general practitioner in order to ensure there is a continuity of care to manage their condition.”
Creswick pharmacist Jeff Unmack said he agreed pharmacist’s skills could be better used to their full potential to help patients who have difficulty securing an appointment with a general practitioner.
“We like to think we can help grow the pie of people being captured by the health system rather than them being missed altogether,” he said.
The Pharmacy Board of Australia is launching a consultation to seek views on the potential role of pharmacists in prescribing.
UFS chief executive Lynne McLennan said expanding the capability of the pharmacist could be critical to improving health care for small rural towns where there were fewer or sometimes no options to see a general practitioner.
But addressing the shortage of health professionals in rural and regional Australia, including Ballarat, required a number of changes from a federal government level.
“Certainly rebates and incentives for doctors practicing in rural areas should be increased. More work needs to be done to attract rural students into medicine with rural scholarships and rural placements. Some of this is already being done but not enough to have an impact,” she said.
“We had a doctor retire just before Christmas. He was a long serving outstanding Ballarat GP. We advertised for 12 months with every recruitment company, every website and we did not get one application to fill his role. Our other doctors had to take on additional patients to make sure his patients had continuity of care.
“It is a dire situation in terms of GP recruitment.”
The Department of Health told The Courier in a statement on Sunday it has requested the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria investigate any issues with general practitioners in Ballarat.
Federal Member for Ballarat and Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King said in a statement she was ‘pleased’ the department had requested the investigation.
“All Australians deserve access to reliable, affordable healthcare when they need it, wherever they live,” she said.
“The current Liberal Government’s Medicare freeze on GP items has severely impacted on the income of regional GPs and services that are being provided.
“We need to encourage more doctors into our regions and one strategy would be to end the Medicare freeze, something that Labor has been committed to since the 2016 election.”