The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is warning that a failure to invest adequately in general practice in North Queensland will result in continued increases in overall healthcare costs.
It comes following the college’s submission to an inquiry into the provision of general practitioner and related primary health services to outer metropolitan, rural and regional Australia, which are under pressure from a maldistribution of funding and support for medical services.
It follows reports of a critical GP shortage in remote, rural and regional areas across Queensland.
RACGP Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett said that strong government action was needed.
“GPs in North Queensland are doing a tremendous job, but the general practice workforce is heading towards a crisis,” he said.
“In the state’s north, there are widespread reports of GPs working long hours and delaying their retirement because they don’t want to let their community down. One of the problems we have is that right across Australia not enough future doctors are opting for a career in general practice.
“The proportion of final year medical students listing general practice as their first preference speciality for future practice has fallen to 15.2%, the lowest since 2012. For every new GP, there are 10 new non-GP specialists and this gap between the number of non-GP specialists and GP specialists widened from 119 in 2009, to 4271 in 2017.
“Australia’s medical intern program is almost exclusively hospital-based. Whilst gaining experience in a hospital setting is important, we must do more to boost experience in general practice during medical school and prevocational years.
“Government should invest more in programs that increase junior doctors’ exposure to rural general practice such as the newly announced John Flynn Prevocational Doctor Program. Other helpful steps would include medical schools fostering students to pursue an interest in general practice, in particular rural placements, by increasing time spent training in rural areas and exposure to leaders in these fields and focussing on generalist competencies as the core of medical training.
“It would be useful to review the teaching Practice Incentive Payment to ensure it adequately supports practices to host medical student and junior hospital doctors.
“I also support the National Medical Workforce Strategy Steering Committee’s proposal to increase research opportunities. This can be used as a lever to increase the profile and prestige of the speciality of general practice. Right now, a lack of research pathways, PhD opportunities and representation of GPs in senior academic positions has a harmful impact on medical students’ perceptions of general practice and this must change.”
RACGP Rural Chair and Townsville GP Dr Michael Clements also said that pay and entitlements must change.
“It is important to be upfront about this – GPs in training face significant financial pressures once they transition from the hospital training environment to general practice,” he said.
“It is hardly surprising we face an uphill battle in attracting more people to the profession when hospital salaries have continued to rise year on year and the Medicare freeze has left GPs behind. Being a GP in North Queensland is an incredibly rewarding profession and I would recommend it to any future doctor, but we need to get them out of hospital roles first.
“If we don’t address inadequate remuneration, we will get nowhere fast, and the long-term sustainability of general practice and patient access to care in North Queensland will suffer.
“We also recommend that a national body be established to protect GP registrar pay and conditions through portability of entitlements across rotations and salary parity with hospital-based registrars, which will improve the attractiveness of training in general practice for our younger doctors when compared to to hospital roles.
“The protection of entitlements and guaranteed salaries must be offered to all registrars in GP training. If protection of entitlements and guaranteed salaries are only offered to those training as rural generalists or rural GPs, a two-tiered system will be created, dividing the profession, exacerbating AGPT recruitment issues, and undermining patient care.
“The challenges are in front of us but with the right settings in place we can encourage more future doctors to choose a career in general practice, including in North Queensland.”