‘We want a doctor, not a handout’

5 minute read

A struggling clinic responds to a Liberal senator who described their pleas for staff incentives as ‘self-serving’ and ‘offensive’.

Liberal senator Hollie Hughes has sparked outrage after calling a west Melbourne practice manager’s plea for more staffing incentives “offensive”.  

But the targets of her outrage say they’re not asking for favours, they just want to be able to recruit doctors to work in their clinics.

Monday’s hearing for the inquiry into the provision of general practitioner and related primary health services to outer metropolitan, rural and regional Australians was held in Melbourne, and followed hearings in regional South Australia, Tasmania, NSW and Canberra. 

The Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs are looking into the current state of general practice in non-metro areas, what reforms have worked in the past and the impact of the pandemic on workforce shortages. 

This week, in Melbourne, the committee heard from several groups, including the Australian Medical Students Association. 

It was AMSA President Jasmine Davis’ first time appearing at a government inquiry, and she gave testimony around some of the incentives and programs that have previously been trialled to encourage medical students to go rural. 

“What we were really trying to put forward was that the solution really can’t be a quick fix,” Ms Davis told The Medical Republic. 

“That’s what governments have attempted to do in the past – they’ve come up with a lot of innovative programs, mainly in the context of elections, but haven’t necessarily been consultative of GPs and of people in the workforce.” 

While most of the senators were receptive to Ms Davis, NSW Senator Hollie Hughes took the opportunity to say that, in her opinion, most of the issues facing general practice workforce shortages were down to a culture within medicine that denigrates GPs. 

“I agree that there is a significant cultural issue, and of course there needs to be more done on that,” Ms Davis said at the hearing. 

“But I would definitely disagree with what you’re saying about GPs talking down the profession – some of them are, but [it is] because they’re burnt out … they’re struggling, they’ve been through two years of a pandemic.”

Ms Hughes’ response was explosive. 

“I just find this whole thing to be completely self-serving,” she said.  

“You’re sitting here telling us that government needs to solve the problem because GPs are burnt out.

“How do you think restaurateurs feel? How do you think businesses and small businesses feel? 

“They have had exactly the same sorts of issues through covid, yet we’re travelling around the country listening to complaints from people who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, who are quite often the highest-paid people in country towns, and yet expect the government to further incentivise them.

“How is that fair to every other Australian taxpayer?”

While she was directly addressing Ms Davis, Ms Hughes also made reference to testimony given by staff from the Westgate Health Co-Op earlier in the day. 

Although the primary care clinics run by the co-op are located in a relatively metropolitan area, it is run as a non-profit on a subscription and bulk-bill-only model, specifically servicing lower socio-economic demographics.

Given its physical locations are in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Westgate Health does not receive any assistance in terms of workforce incentives. 

Still, CEO Liz Hunter told the Senate inquiry, that did not mean it hadn’t been struggling to attract new GPs. 

Ms Hughes took issue with Ms Hunter’s assertion that areas like Melbourne’s west needed additional assistance. 

“I do find it offensive that someone who is 10 minutes out of a CBD wants to be considered the same as someone who lives 3½ hours from a regional centre,” Ms Hughes said. 

“It is absolutely unacceptable to those people that live in rural and regional Australia, because they have very limited access to anything.” 

Ms Hunter told TMR that she wasn’t asking for a handout, she was asking for a doctor. 

“We’re not here saying ‘can you please prop up our business’, we’re not saying ‘can you please give us a million dollars’, we are just saying, ‘can we have more doctors because doctors are fundamental to providing care, and care in the community is fundamental to keeping people out of hospital,’” the Westgate Health CEO said. 

One way to do this would be to give the area Distribution Priority Area status, which would allow the clinic to attract overseas-trained doctors who normally wouldn’t be able to bill Medicare. 

This measure is reserved for rural and remote areas. 

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia has, in the past, been outspoken on the need to keep DPA exemptions to rural areas only, but CEO Peta Rutherford said Ms Hughes’ words did not accurately reflect the organisation’s sentiments. 

“We have never denied that there are pockets of GP shortages in metropolitan areas,” Ms Rutherford said. 

The committee has one hearing left, set to take place on March 17 in Townsville. 

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