As regional GPs retire, where are the young doctors who want to replace them?

In communities across Australia, the old guard of general practitioners (GPs) are retiring and it is unclear who will take their place.

These new vacancies can take years to fill and on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, there are so many vacancies for GPs that the situation has become critical.

"The shortage of health professionals across the Eyre Peninsula is at crisis point now," Wudinna GP Scott Lewis said.

"We've had communities that have been without resident doctors for significant periods of time.

"We are losing doctors who have been in their communities for significant periods of time and replacing them is going to be extremely difficult."

Dr Lewis is acutely aware of the challenges these communities face in hiring new permanent GPs.

He has been advertising for a second doctor in Wudinna for nearly a year and is offering a house, a car and even a fully funded pilot's licence to make it easier to visit family and friends.

The inland farming community is lucky to have Dr Lewis, who has been the local GP for 10 years after settling in the community following a stint as a medical student.

Other communities are not as lucky.

An hour's drive east of Wudinna, the farming community of Kimba, SA, lost their long-time GP in 2014 and advertised for more than two years before hiring a new doctor who himself is now leaving.

Streaky Bay, on the peninsula's western coastline, has been without a GP for three months following their long-term doctor's retirement.

"We have had four doctors in 90 years — we aren't used to being in this situation," Streaky Bay Mayor, Travis Barber said.

Without a permanent local GP, these communities are serviced by locum doctors — fly-in fly-out doctors that rotate on a weekly basis — but Dr Lewis is adamant this is not a permanent solution.

"People's health inevitably suffers without access to quality, coordinated primary care," he said.

"Their heart disease doesn't get managed as well, their diabetes doesn't get managed as well.

"And what we see is that the overall, long-term health of communities drops."

Long-term GPs 'a thing of the past'

Dr Lewis believes regional communities should adjust their expectations when it comes to the careers of their local GPs.

"Towns are still looking for their one doctor who will stay forever, but people like that are extremely rare and really we need to aim for people stay for three to five years."

He points to changes in how GPs are trained and shifting family dynamics as part of what is making it more difficult to hire regional GPs.

"We still have a very metrocentric approach to training doctors," Dr Lewis said.

"They are trained in the cities and while they train, they set down roots there."

And those roots might include a significant other who also has a career to pursue.

"Certainly we can find a job for a doctor — but to find a job for a chemical engineer, or lawyer, or a merchant banker is a very difficult thing obviously."

Looking for solutions

President of the Eyre Peninsula Local Government Area, Sam Telfer, has formed a working group with affected mayors to workshop solutions.

Mr Telfer said that he hoped to find solutions that would help improve the flexibility of regional jobs.

"The expectation is that a doctor will come into a town, do rounds in the morning, clinic during the day, be on call the rest of the time. And there are a lot of doctors that don't want to have that full gamut. We want to help set up a system that's more flexible."

Dr Lewis would like to see more formal pathways available for doctors who want to work in the country.

"Identify them early, set them on a path, train them in the regional areas, help them make the connections and relationships that will ensure they decide to practise here," he said.

Country Health SA recognises that attracting doctors to the regions is a challenge across regional Australia and said they worked "with key stakeholders including local governments and the Rural Doctors Workforce Agency to develop incentives to attract doctors to regional areas".

They also pointed to the importance of the South Australian Virtual Emergency Service (SAVES) program in filling the gaps left by GP shortages.

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This article is published and provided the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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