Patients of Skipton GP Dr Mohammed Al Naima say they will be forced to drive up to an hour to Ballarat to access health care after the Beaufort and Skipton Health Service decided not to renew his contract.
And they fear for the elderly and those who cannot drive, with public transport options limited to one bus per day from Skipton to Ballarat and three return services, only one of which departs at a convenient time.
The community fought to keep Dr Al Naima practicing in their town last year after a dispute with his Medicare provider number and contractual issues, but he was informed on Wednesday night that his contract would not be renewed.
A spokesperson for the health service said last week that an independent investigation had deemed Dr Al Naima did not meet the organisation's standards and the decision was made.
"It's very sad and our community is very upset," said Streatham mother-of-four Sally Wills.
"I can't even fathom the thought if you've got a sick kid here, having to travel an hour in to Ballarat to see a doctor ... and we've all heard the stories of how hard it is to get in to see a doctor in Ballarat," she said.
Community members fear the GP clinic could be privatised, as was announced in nearby Beaufort last week, or even closed leaving the health service in town offering only its nursing home.
Beaufort and Skipton Health confirmed a temporary doctor would be in place from January 13 while a replacement is sourced. An advertisement for a locum states the temporary position is available from January to March.
A statement issued on Monday says the future of the GP clinic is secure and "any claims otherwise are completely unfounded".
The statement also pointed towards Beaufort as an existing alternative, as opposed to people travelling to Ballarat.
Dr Al Naima's contract was due to finish in January but it is believed that, after his meeting with the board and chief executive on Wednesday, he saw patients who had appointments booked on Thursday but will not return.
Several locals who spoke to The Courier said they believed the management and health department had long term plans to close the GP clinic, which they feared could occur at the end of the locum position come March.
"There's a ripple effect about how this could affect the community," Ms Wills said. "Many people have retired to Skipton because of the doctor and hospital. It's a factor in where you decide to retire or live ... and now people are going to bypass our town because of the uncertainty which impacts the whole town, the supermarket, the cafe."
With Dr Al Naima's departure, Ms Wills is particularly concerned for the mental health of the area's men.
"I think the biggest loss, a huge concern, is the amount of men going to the doctor - they just won't go any more," she said.
"With men it's got to be on their door step or it's too hard ... and Dr Mohammed has been brilliant in building relationships with so many men in the community. They just won't go and talk about mental health issues to a locum they know isn't going to be there in three months."
Rural mental health advocate Nick Shady, who also sits on the Beaufort and Skipton Health Foundation board, echoed her concerns.
"If it becomes privatised and we have a service with a rotation of doctors, they lose that one-on-one with a doctor and people with mental health problems just aren't going to open up," he said.
"We talk about the suicide rate in rural areas, well there's blokes who get in there and have only just managed to start talking to Dr Mohammed about what's happening. We are talking serious stuff that is far more important than dollars and cents."
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Dr Al Naima has been working four days a week at Skipton for more than four years, and last year was reportedly so keen to stay he offered to sign a 10-year contract.
Dr Malcolm Anderson will continue to consult in Skipton on Friday mornings.
Natalie Featherstone would travel to see Dr Al Naima, her closest GP, when she was living in Lismore and since moving to Ballarat she continued to drive back to Skipton when she needed a medical consultation.
She knows of several other people who have continued to travel from as far afield as Maryborough to continue seeing Dr Al Naima.
"He just goes far and beyond to help his patients. He's really caring and you don't get a lot like that these days - you go to other doctors and you're in and out the door in two minutes but Dr Mohammed takes the time.
"And if you are really sick and need to see him that day, Dr Mohammed will squeeze you in unlike in Ballarat you can't get in and have to wait a couple of days."
Dr Al Naima declined to comment.
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