The defunding of general practice has been largely invisible to the public. Talk to them about it.
Let me tell you about a beautiful little town on the coast in southwest Victoria.
It is nestled around a port, with quiet beaches and views of the ocean that take your breath away. Whales can be seen off the shore if you’re lucky. Fishing and camping can be enjoyed every weekend. There is a plentiful choice of good kindergartens and schools. You can always get a parking space. The sunsets are spectacular. The community is friendly. It is even possible to buy good coffee.
Yet the town has a big problem: it doesn’t have enough doctors.
One by one, GPs have either retired or moved away without being replaced. This is not the fault of the doctors who have left. They are human beings with lives and families and needs of their own.
It is getting harder and harder to recruit GPs in rural areas all over Australia.
Why is this?
I have my own perspective because I am a rural GP. The town described above is my home. I moved here seven years ago, during which time I have seen the number of doctors and clinics gradually decline while the population has grown. The level of distress currently experienced by patients, doctors and staff is very high. The wait for non-urgent appointments is now several weeks. For the first time ever, clinics have had to close their books to new patients. The emergency department is under even greater demand than normal. Patients are driving over an hour away to seek care in other towns.
As a GP, this is devastating. My vocation as a doctor is to help those who are sick and in distress. It is heartbreaking to be unable to meet the needs of everyone seeking help. I worry about this constantly. The truth is that I am human and there is a limit to how many patients I can safely see in a day. General practice is a challenging job, and the risk of burnout is high. All of us at the clinic are working longer hours and fitting in more appointments, but it is never enough. There simply aren’t enough of us.
The way things are headed, eventually there are not going to be enough GPs anywhere in rural Australia.
The difficulties we are facing in our town are not the result of a couple of years of bad luck. The issue is that primary healthcare has been underfunded for many years, and we are seeing the fruits of this now. Fewer and fewer graduating doctors are choosing general practice as a specialty, let alone rural general practice.
All GPs know the financial pressure that we are under, and the stress of navigating the MBS in addition to our challenging clinical decision making. We know the constant worry about being audited if our billings fall outside the norm. I have seen many GPs on social media expressing frustration at their patients’ expectations to be bulk-billed.
What I have realised in talking to my patients was that they genuinely have no idea about how the system works. They are frustrated and frightened by the doctor shortage, but don’t understand what is causing it.
There is a common misunderstanding that the government pays GPs a salary, and that bulk-billing just means the government pays the bill instead of the patient. Many then think that doctors who charge a gap are double-dipping or just being greedy.
I love my patients and my colleagues, and therefore I am not going to quit. The practice I work at has extraordinarily dedicated doctors and have become like my second family. I will keep doing my best in a system that is not set up for the type of GP that I am. I will continue to participate in medical education and encouraging the next generation of GPs.
So back to the original question: Why is it so hard to get doctors to come here?
Having made my home in the country, I can understand and share the frustration of the local community. I love the peace and quiet, my veggie garden and my chickens. I often wonder why city doctors can’t see what an amazing place this is to live. I then remember how I felt seven years ago when my husband was first looking at a job here. I looked at the map and immediately thought no way, that is too far. It was hard moving away from all our family and friends whilst raising a young family. It is still hard being away from them all. Being a rural GP can be incredibly lonely at times, as the challenges of small town medicine can make it difficult to make friends. We won’t solve this problem by pretending that there are no hardships involved.
I believe, however, that the fundamental reason why we don’t have enough GPs is that we have had almost 10 years of relentless defunding of primary care. This is the reason why junior doctors are walking away from general practice.
You may ask then, why did I stay? There was no single reason for this decision, it was one that built up slowly over time. I can say that it had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with the people I met here. I think deep down I have always had a longing to live in the country, and the little acreage we are living on now truly feels like home to me. My husband and children are settled here now and with time we have made good friends. I have had an incredibly generous and kind mentor at work who supported me through my training and taught me to be a better doctor. She was the main reason I wanted to stay on after I completed my specialist training. The clinic had been so good to me while I was training that I wanted to stay and give back to the community.
And there are signs of hope – we have a GP registrar joining us next year who first came here as a medical student. She fell in love with the clinic and has now committed to moving here and being a long-term member of the community. I absolutely refuse to give up hope in general practice.
So what can we do?
I felt so passionately about our situation that I recently wrote and posted a blog article about this. My aim was to explain the way general practice is funded, why bulk billing is no longer sustainable, and why this was leading to the GP shortage. It was circulated widely through our local community, and the difference has been palpable. The overwhelming response from patients has been I had no idea it was this hard for GPs. Many have written to our local member in response.
If you are finding your patients are frustrated by the wait for appointments or the out-of-pocket cost, I encourage you to speak openly with your patients about the reality so they can better understand. Anyone can make their voice heard by contacting their local member. If enough patients speak up, we just might be able to enact some real change.
This piece was adapted from a blog post at drdeborahcarrington.com.