Country Victoria faces a conundrum attracting doctors — many who want to come, can’t
Megan Belot appreciates the variety of work she performs as a rural GP. (ABC News: Ben Knight)
For five months, Mandy Hutchinson had been tearing her hair out trying to find a doctor who would come and work in Kerang.
“I’d tried everything,” she said. “I’d rung everyone I knew.”
In theory, it shouldn’t have been that hard.
After all, this is the country that’s reportedly about to resuscitate the rural romance of the bush GP by bringing A Country Practice back to our TV screens.
And Kerang, on the banks of the Loddon River, is itself a pleasant country town just three hours’ drive from Melbourne.
But Ms Hutchinson, the CEO of Northern District Community Health, wasn’t getting anywhere.
It was then she had her “big idea”.
“I thought, ‘This could be professional suicide’,” she said.
It wasn’t. She and her staff put together a karaoke video clip, singing “We Want A GP” to the tune of Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”.
Northern District Community Health in Kerang created a music video to attract doctors to the Victorian rural town.
It was as daggy as they come, but it got more attention than Ms Hutchinson could have hoped for.
“It kind of went crazy for a little while,” she said.
“I think the song showed that we were so desperate, we were willing to sing into our hands.”
Initially, it was a huge success. Ms Hutchinson was flooded with applications.
Unfortunately, they were all from registrars — doctors in training — who need supervision from a fully qualified GP.
And, of course, Kerang didn’t have any GPs at all.
“So we had these beautiful young people saying, ‘We’d come and work for you’, but we couldn’t take them,” she said.
“We were doubly stuffed. It was really hard, getting all these applicants and going, ‘I wish we could have them in the clinic’, and you just can’t.”
And there, said Ms Hutchinson, is the problem.
Kerang’s campaign attracted plenty of interest, but many keen young doctors were unqualified to work unsupervised. (YouTube: Northern District Community Health)
Barriers to the bush
By the time young doctors are qualified enough to go bush on their own, they’re no longer interested.
- The Opposition has said it would spend $1 million on a rural health strategy
- It would cover training in rural areas and incentives for doctors to move to the country
- A taskforce would examine issues such as training opportunities and career pathways to ensure a skilled rural workforce
As at November 2, 2018
“If you finish university in your mid-20s after a six-year degree, then you have to do four years of training,” Ms Hutchinson said.
“That usually happens in Melbourne, or in a big regional centre.
“So now you’re 30, you’ve met the love of your life, you’ve settled down, you’ve got your connections — and it’s impossible to think about moving.
“If we can get them up here earlier, they’ll make those connections here, and that’s what we want.”
But the system isn’t set up that way.
Which is one of the key reasons why Victoria — a rapidly growing state, with a booming economy — still has a shortage of rural health professionals and a significant gap between the health of those who live in the city and those who don’t.
It’s not just that country Victorians are more likely to die of preventable deaths.
Or that mental health, or drug and alcohol treatment, are much harder to find.
This week, the Rural Workforce Agency of Victoria lists job ads for dozens of GPs in the bush.
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More than 60 GPs are being sought in the northern part of the state, and another 30 are needed in Gippsland.
Western Victoria has 45 vacancies.
The shortage of GPs means in some parts of country Victoria, patients are charged for a visit to the local equivalent of the emergency department.
“We have people coming up for their holidays and they get a massive bill,” said Megan Belot, the vice-president of the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria.
“They’re like, ‘Why would I get a bill? This is the emergency department! This doesn’t happen in Melbourne’,” Dr Belot said.
“And it’s like, ‘Sorry, this is what happens here. This is how it is’. It’s not fair.”
‘In the last generation, we had superhero doctors’
Ms Hutchinson’s karaoke video appeal was finally answered by Dr Belot, who has started a month-long trial at Northern District Community Health.
She’s that rare find — a doctor who has always wanted to be a rural GP.
“I love the variety of what I get to do,” she said.
“In the morning I can be doing a caesarean, and by lunchtime I could be cutting out skin lesions.
“In the evening I can be on call and dealing with a massive trauma.
“It’s a massive day, but the variety of work that I get to do — I love it. It’s fantastic.”
- Labor has not made any specific election pledges about addressing rural GP shortages
- However, it says, if re-elected, it would fund “500,000 more specialist appointments in regional communities over the next four years”
- It also would set up a registry for GPs, including data about hospital waiting lists
As at November 2, 2018
Ms Hutchinson says she could find far more GPs like Dr Belot if she could just get to medical students earlier in their training.
And there’s some powerful evidence to back her up.
The Murray to Mountains program, set up in 2012, allows medical students to do their study and internships in north-east Victoria.
Of the 70 medical interns that have gone through the program, more than half are still practising in the region.
The program has now been extended to four other locations, to train more than 300 interns each year.
But Ms Hutchinson says, to solve the chronic shortages in places like Kerang, it needs to be statewide.
“That’s the sort of program we reckon would really work here as well,” she said.
“It’s a program which develops procedural skills, like anaesthetists, and obstetricians, things that we could do with here too — but also provides great rural GP generalist skills like we need in small little communities like ours.”
A number of community members starred in the music video to attract doctors to Kerang. (YouTube: Northern District Community Health)
Yet there is no statewide workforce strategy to address the shortage of doctors and other health professionals in country Victoria.
The Opposition has promised that if elected, it would develop a strategy that commits $1 million to look at everything from training in rural areas to incentives for medical professionals and their families to move to the country.
Ms Hutchinson wants whoever wins this election to get more trainee doctors into country towns like hers.
“In the last generation, we had superhero doctors,” she said.
“The next generation are a bit smarter. They don’t want to be up all night.
“They want to have time with their family, and time to be in their community, and enjoy the beauty of that.
“We’ve got to have the pathway for medical students to come and experience rural life, properly supervised.
“I don’t want anyone to come here and fail. I want them to come here and shine.”