In some towns, it might be hard to get in to see a doctor on the same day you fall ill.
In the Wimmera town of Horsham, it could take up to six weeks.
The Lister House Clinic in Horsham has been operating in town for more than 80 years, but it has been a struggle to staff the clinic with enough GPs.
“We did actually have 12 doctors 18 months ago, and then a few of them left for many varied and different reasons at that time,” said nurse manager Amanda Wilson, who is also one of the clinic’s owners.
“So we’ve actually been in quite a crisis mode since that for the last 18 months.”
The clinic realised a crisis was looming about seven years ago, as many of its long-term doctors prepared for retirement.
Despite their efforts to brace for the future, Dr David Wilson said the loss of multiple GPs in a short space of time left them struggling.
“We probably need ideally double the number of doctors we have at the moment,” he said.
“That’s not exclusive to Horsham, many, many towns across the country are in the same boat.”
Ms Wilson said not being able to make quick appointments or follow-ups easily had worried the ageing population of the town.
“Not being able to see a consistent doctor or have consistent appointments … it might be six weeks’ wait, [it] just causes a lot of stress and anxiety throughout the whole community,” she said.
Job ads show dozens of GP positions need filling
The issue of access to GPs has long plagued country communities.
The Rural Workforce Agency Victoria is a government-funded organisation listing health positions across the state, and showed 67 positions available in Western Victoria, 77 in the Murray and 32 in Gippsland.
However, those figures do not show positions available through commercial job websites, so the real number of vacancies in each region would be higher.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) Victoria president Julian Rait said a freeze on the Medicare rebate over the past five years disproportionately hurt country doctors.
That has since been lifted, but he said the damage had been done.
“Local inner-city GPs have probably seen a reduction in their income of barely 2 per cent, the effect in the country has been more like 20 per cent,” Dr Rait said.
“And that’s had a devastating impact on the ability of rural general practice to attract and retain GPs.”
The AMA said solutions to the problem were complex, but suggested a quota of medical students should be recruited from country areas, as they were more likely to return to work in the bush.
Dr Rait said the Victorian Government also had a role to play in supporting general practice and investing in infrastructure in regional hospitals.
“If we reinvest in general practice in the country, we’re going to reinvigorate many of these towns and make sure that people can grow up and grow old in these communities without fear that they won’t be able to access adequate health care,” he said.
Lack of GPs forcing patients to emergency
The local state MP in Horsham, Emma Kealy, is also the shadow minister for country health.
She said the peak of the doctor shortage in Horsham corresponded with a spike in presentations to the local emergency department.
“They were people who were trying to get a script or who had a niggling issue they were trying to get on top of that they wouldn’t normally have gone to the emergency department, they would have gone to their GP, but they simply couldn’t get an appointment,” Ms Kealy said.
A spokesman for Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy said GP shortages were an issue for the Federal Government.
But Ms Kealy insisted it was hurting the state’s bottom line by forcing more patients into emergency departments.
She said the State Government needed to address the broader liveability issues in country areas to make them more appealing to doctors.
“Unless you invest in our local road networks, our schools, our community safety then we won’t have a community where people are happy to work and move,” Ms Kealy said.
At Lister House Clinic, Ms Wilson said she was the first to admit there was no easy answer.
She suggested an exchange program with a city clinic, discounts on power bills for country GPs, or conscription to force doctors to serve time in the regions.
“Horsham itself is lucky that we’ve still got the doctors we have, because there’s towns around that have nothing,” Ms Wilson said.
“And I do know that if you lose your medical services, if you lose your health services, you lose your town.”
The Federal Health Minister has been contacted for comment.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Federal Minister for Rural Health, Bridget McKenzie, said the Government was committed to rural and regional healthcare.
She said the Government funds the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria to recruit and retain GPs, and the agency has been working with local practices in Horsham to develop solutions, including relocation grants to move to the town.