NT tour first step in addressing workforce shortage

Michael Clements

13/05/2021 1:32:28 PM

The RACGP will continue to take a more ‘hands on’ approach to longstanding workforce issues, writes Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements.

Dr Michael Clements with Anjali Palmer.
RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements in Katherine with Bauhinia Health owner and practice manager, Anjali Palmer. (Image: Supplied)

Since being appointed Chair of RACGP Rural, one of my goals has been to engage with members and stakeholders of GP workforce and training organisations across the country to find out exactly what their needs are, and how we can contribute.
While the COVID-era has seen the majority of those meetings take place over Zoom, it was wonderful to spend four days in the Northern Territory last week to witness first-hand the work being carried out by our members.
My first stop was Katherine, a town I called home for three years as I completed my own GP training and obtained my Fellowship. It is also a community that experienced significant upheaval last year, when the last private general practice in Katherine closed its doors, leaving more than 8000 patients with no option but to drive more than 300 kms to Darwin.
To me, this was a ‘canary in the coal mine’ moment, and typical of the struggle faced by many rural and remote private general practices, despite being the cornerstone of good community primary care. It was also an unusual situation, as despite there being a number of rural generalists (RGs) working in the local hospital and Aboriginal medical services (AMSs), community primary care was in crisis.  
So I was very pleased to see the private practice had since reopened, now as Bauhinia Health, where I met with new owner and practice manager Anjali Palmer. We spoke about the issues she has faced so far with recruitment and training, as well as her plan and vision for the community, and how the RACGP can help.   
As a college, we can help new practice owners with the accreditation process to offer GP training, develop supervision plans, and link practices with the local hospital for a shared employment model.
Bauhinia is also a part of our Practice to Practice pilot program, launched in March, which seeks to fill the workforce gap by facilitating connections with urban-based GPs who can offer some of their time to support a rural community.
I also had the pleasure of visiting Maningrida, the territory’s largest Aboriginal community, where I met with Rural Council member Dr Melanie Matthews who works at the Mala’la Health Service. Recently taken over by the community, they have a very close-knit group of doctors who have such a love for the community and its people, evidenced by the several years many of them have been there.
Like Ms Palmer’s practice in Katherine, they are also currently recruiting, and one of the things that struck me about their employment model is its flexibility. They have conversations with each trainee and fellow to pinpoint exactly what their needs are and how they can be best supported.
In fact, all of the medical practices take a tailored approach for each doctor that applies; they look at what their learning needs are and help them to gain the skills that they’re going to need. By taking this approach, people can be reassured that they are going to be well supported – financially, academically and culturally.

During the tour, Dr Clements also met with Rural Council member Dr Melanie Matthews in Maningrida, the territory's largest Aboriginal community. (Image: Supplied) 
These are just some of the rich learning opportunities that exist for our GP trainees and fellows, people just need to have an interest and curiosity about Indigenous Health and remote medicine, they don’t need to be an RG to be of value to these communities.
No matter what phase of your life you’re in, many of the communities are happy to have you even if it's just for temporary placement. One of the doctors actually brought her young children out because she thought that it would be a wonderful life experience for them.
During my stay, I also had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders from Katherine Hospital, as well as some of the decision makers from Northern Territory General Practice Education (NTGPE), Northern Territory Regional Training Hub, the local PHN and Northern Territory Rural Generalist Coordination Unit and was very encouraged by their desire to support GP training in these regions for both GPs and RGs.
I took the opportunity to reinforce the RACGP’s commitment to these stakeholders, as well as that the college is here to support our trainees and that we are interested in engaging with them more over the next few years on how we can improve our role in supporting them to meet their workforce needs.
This is a slightly new move for RACGP Rural; to be frank, until now, workforce is something that had been left to the agencies. But given the Federal Government’s transition to community-based, profession-led training, the college will have a much more important role in these workforce solutions.
That’s why I’m here and why we’re doing this now.
Next on my list is Tasmania, where I will be heading next month to meet with local GPs, communities and workforce agencies to find out what their experience is, where the gaps are, and how we can bring the expertise of more than 40,000 members to these communities that are recruiting.
As both Chair of RACGP Rural and a member of the college Board, I want to assure you that these visits, my experiences and the conversations being had will feed into the work that the Board does and the decisions that we make going forward.
Our role as a college is to see how we can facilitate, streamline, and promote rural and remote medicine to all GP applicants and encourage them to some of these remarkable sights.
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Dr Oliver Frank   14/05/2021 1:00:18 PM

Great to see that you and the RACGP are doing this.

Dr Peter JD Spafford   17/05/2021 8:13:29 PM

Shame you did not visit the other practice that has opened in Katherine and funded by five local families and has the same issues. Talk about cherry picking and favoritism. Not a good look Michael.