darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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February 25, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.43 am)
— I rise to raise my concerns about the crisis in the rural health workforce. I deliberately use the word ‘crisis’, not to sound alarmist but to endorse the term used by the Rural Doctors Association of Australia in its presentation to members of parliament this week. I readily accept that providing quality health services to all Australians, regardless of their postcodes, is an enormous challenge.

But, as we have seen repeatedly, the state Labor administrations are simply not up to the job. They have failed miserably in New South Wales and there is plenty of room for improvement in Victoria. Today I want to focus on the need to attract and retain more Australian trained doctors in rural and regional Australia. Our nation has become too reliant on overseas trained physicians—and I am not criticising them individually, but I question the moral legitimacy of taking doctors from countries which often have health systems poorer than our own.

Many of the doctors we are recruiting have an important role to play in improving the health outcomes of their own nations. My concern is that recruiting overseas doctors is a stopgap measure that does not overcome the long-term shortage in rural health professionals. The RDAA reports that overseas trained doctors now make up almost 50 per cent of Australia’s rural doctor workforce—and I must stress they make an important contribution to our regional communities. Approximately 25 per cent of doctors working in rural Australia are aged 55 years or over. They are obviously nearing their retirement age but there are very few young Australian trained doctors lining up to replace them. The RDAA reports that at least 1,800 additional doctors are urgently required in regional Australia and the critical shortage of rural doctors means that many country families are facing long waits to visit their local GP.

In Gippsland many towns are experiencing difficulties in attracting and retaining GPs. As our community ages, it is inevitable that complex health needs will present and we will need more GPs in rural areas. As individuals who are passionate about the future of regional communities we need to work with organisations like RDAA to promote the benefits of regional practice. We can certainly do better at selling the message of a rich and varied life in some of the most beautiful parts of Australia. I note that many Gippsland doctors, such as Dr David Campbell, Dr Peter Stevens and Dr David Monash, are doing their part by promoting rural practice and helping to train students in our community. But as members of parliament we need to get the policy setting right.

I am attracted to the solutions of the RDAA, which include ensuring that all proposed health policies and actions must be rural proofed. Forcing governments to obtain independent assessments of the impacts of proposed policies on existing rural health services has a great deal of merit. I am also supportive of the view that a rural rescue package should be urgently introduced by the federal government to attract and retain more doctors in regional areas, particularly to attract junior doctors to rural practice. There needs to be a better system of incentive payments to attract young doctors to rural areas and more support services to make sure that they enjoy the experience and stay for the longer term.

With the increased number of young medical students currently in training, who are undertaking their courses at the moment, we have an opportunity now to do everything in our power to make sure that at least a reasonable number of those young students choose rural practice. I fear that if we miss this opportunity the crisis in the rural health workforce will only worsen over the next decade. I commend the activities of the RDAA in its effort to promote the opportunities of living and working in regional Australia and to provide a major contribution to rural health needs of our nation.

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