Country doctors will be paid extra under a $65-million bid to tackle GP shortages in remote and regional Australia.
- Doctors working outside major regional centres will receive higher incentives as of 2022
- The more remote the doctor, the higher the incentive, but some doubt it will be enough
- The RDAA is celebrating the change, but regional and remote doctors question how much impact it will have
Under a measure to be unveiled in Tuesday’s federal budget, about 10,000 rural doctors will receive increased incentives to bulk-bill their patients.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia says doctors in the most remote parts of Australia may receive up to $50,000 extra a year under the plan, helping retention and recruitment of medics.
Regional GPs receive Medicare incentives to bulk bill patients, but the payments are the same whether they work in big regional centres or a remote communities.
From 2022, that will change with the introduction of a progressive incentive — the more remote the location, the higher the payment to the GP.
On the far tip of Western Australia’s Kimberley region, Kununurra GP Stephanie Trust said operating a clinic 3,000 kilometres from the state capital was tough.
“Keeping an eye on our overheads is constantly challenging,” she said.
“Things like locums, getting staff to travel, housing — is much more challenging than in Perth, for example.
“However, it’s never going to cover the overheads we have here in Kununurra.”
Small dollars, big change
The incentive for GPs outside metropolitan areas will increase from $9.80 per consultation to $10.40 for medium-sized towns, progressively increasing to $12.35 for very remote GPs.
Minister for Regional Health Mark Coulton said the flagship budget announcement for the sector was an acknowledgement of the challenges faced by rural GPs.
“It’s important to recognise that if we want them to go and service these communities, they need to be remunerated,” he said.
“It can be more financially attractive to stay in some of the more salubrious suburbs of our country rather than going to the areas where the greatest need is.
“They’re not huge amounts per each consultation, but over a period of time, over a week or a month and finally a year, it will add up to be a substantial amount.”
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) has been lobbying for the action on the issue for more than 20 years and president John Hall said the policy was a “game changer” for rural health.
“This funding is actually going into rural towns where the disadvantage is the most,” he said.
“It’s recognising and rewarding rural doctors who are working hard at the coalface for providing that service to these disadvantaged communities.
“We’re hoping to see this change implemented across a range of government programs so that programs that are designed to fund rural health will actually fund rural health.”
Good, but good enough?
Rachel Christmas, a GP at Temora in the New South Wales Riverina, welcomed the measure.
“Rural practices are central to any rural community and they’re actually quite expensive to run and they are often quite marginal,” she said.
“It’s showing that the government is now understanding that complexity increases the more rural that we go.
“We don’t have the specialist support backup as close to us as we need.”
Dr Christmas doubted that the scheme would lure significant numbers of medical professionals away from the major centres.
“I don’t personally think this would be an incentive for someone to move to the country to practise medicine,” she said.
“But ultimately, it’s an incredibly rewarding profession.
“Communities are very grateful for the care that they receive — we have wonderful patients who appreciate what we do.”
Kununurra GP Stephanie Trust said more needed to be done to support rural and remote GPs.
“I think we’re always grateful for any support we can get, but again it’s a drop in the ocean,” Dr Trust said.
But Mr Coulton said the scheme would help bring more graduates to rural areas.
“There’s always that more can be done, but we’re recognising that we can change what we’re doing,” he said.
“Today’s announcement is clearly responding to the needs of the community and the suggestions of the rural doctors themselves.”