25 August 2023

Focus on boosting the Northern Territory health workforce welcomed

The Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) has welcomed a renewed focus on the Northern Territory health workforce and future of general practice care following yesterday’s Primary Health Care Workforce Summit in Alice Springs.    

RACGP Northern Territory Chair, Dr Sam Heard, said that the Summit was a great opportunity to secure the future of general practice care.

“The Northern Territory is the best place in Australia to train and work as a GP,” he said. 

“There is so much important work to do in general practice care and it is really rewarding to work in an extraordinary team, to be highly valued, and to give back to the community. You can really make a difference to the lives of people in your local area and the opportunities for building experience and for career advancement are well recognised.

“It was great to see the Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health Malarndirri McCarthy, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney, and Northern Territory Chief Minister and Health Minister Natasha Fyles, come together to directly engage with healthcare workers and experts from across the Territory.”

RACGP representatives also met with several organisations including the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, and Northern Territory Health, to discuss a range of solutions ahead of the Summit.

“We agreed on an ambitious seven-point plan, which we took to the Summit, to help ensure no patients anywhere in the Territory are left behind,” he said.

“The Territory is facing a critical shortage of GPs, with survey results from last year showing shortages across private general practice, the Aboriginal Community Control Health sector, and the public sector. It is no surprise that remote and isolated areas of the Territory are disproportionately affected; in some communities the loss of one GP can mean no access to general practice care without travelling vast distances.

“Let’s not forget that GPs are central to patient care right across Australia, but this is especially so in remote areas. Nurse practitioners and other allied health professionals with advanced scope of practice are important team members, but they cannot replace a GP. We discussed these challenges, and the solutions we are pursuing, with Senator Malarndirri McCarthy yesterday, and we were really pleased with her response. There are many leaders in the Territory, like Senator McCarthy, committed to improving the future of general practice care and the College looks forward to working with them in the years ahead.

“The solutions proposed in the seven-point plan are designed to increase the number of GPs, including GPs in training, in the Territory and to overcome the maldistribution of GPs in remote areas, so that all patients, no matter their postcode, have strong access to high-quality general practice care well into the future.

“Tax relief for essential workers in health, education, and our police force in remote areas is an important mechanism for attracting more workers and stabilising the cost to employers and service providers. These sorts of incentives have proven to be useful in the past and must be reintroduced.

“We also agreed that a portability of entitlement scheme is vital, and preferrable over a single employer model. One of the challenges in attracting more junior doctors into general practice is that moving jobs means changing employer and losing employment entitlements and benefits, including parental leave and personal leave. A scheme that allows portability of entitlements would enable future doctors to move more freely between sectors.

“The introduction of a gradient for Aboriginal health salary support so that remoteness is recognised via a higher rate, with an annual review based on benchmarks, will help. We also want GPs in training to have a two-year structured training pathway approved in the Territory to enable support to occur throughout the course of their training.

“The ability to provide safe and suitable housing in remote areas is critical to attraction and retention. An injection of funds for capital expenditure to upgrade existing housing and build new facilities must be a priority.
“Let’s not stop there, we need to make it easier for international medical graduates to work in the Territory. The College is very active in this space supporting these doctors, and we would love to see international graduates who are not yet registerable as a GP in Australia get funded GP in training placements if they work in a MM6 or MM7 region, which are more remote communities.

“We also agreed that the RACGP and ACCRM will set an ambitious target of recruiting five, or even 10, GPs in training from interstate to work in the Northern Territory. This will start the process of refilling the pipeline that has been depleted over recent years. 

“Boosting GP numbers isn’t easy; however, I’m confident that if we work together and urge government to have the right programs and policies in place, we can achieve our targets. I don’t want any patient anywhere in the Territory to be left behind when it comes to accessing general practice care, and this bold plan will go a long way towards achieving that. The job is now ahead of us, and I can’t wait to get started.”

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