Call to improve healthcare access in Katherine answered

Morgan Liotta

15/01/2021 1:41:17 PM

The town’s only general practice closed last year, but it has now secured a new locally delivered service.

Close up of Katherine on a map
A new general practice set to open in Katherine in April is hoped to help address current barriers to local healthcare access.

‘It’s very disheartening and disappointing. The impact on this community can’t be underestimated … So we really must see the relevant agencies … look to see what novel solutions there are.’
That is RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements, talking to newsGP in November last year, following closure of the only general practice in Katherine, Northern Territory.
Now, along with the local community, hospital and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs), Dr Clements is welcoming the announcement of a permanent general practice, Katherine Family Medical Practice, opening in April 2021.
‘I am very excited for them [the new practice owners]. What they are doing in terms of linking in the ACCHOs, hospital, Northern Territory Primary Health Network [NT PHN] and Territory Government is excellent, and [they have] a good plan in mind,’ Dr Clements told newsGP.
‘The closure [of the previous practice] and the media around it, helped shine a light on issues that are facing many rural general practices.
‘We know that there have been successes of the rural generalist concept but too often the success has been limited to hospital positions, so we needed new ideas and new relationships to get Katherine back on its feet.’
Other than Katherine Hospital and the town’s busy ACCHOs, Wurli-Wurlinjang and Sunrise, the closure of Katherine’s Gorge Health general practice on 28 October last year has meant the nearest healthcare facility is currently a three-hour drive to Darwin.

But the opening of the new practice will provide improved primary care access to the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, to complement the existing ACCHOs, as well as the local non-Indigenous community.
Katherine Family Medical Practice will operate as a mixed-billing practice with four full-time GPs, but according to the NT PHN’s 2018 workforce needs assessment, nine GPs are needed to provide care to the approximately 10,000 residents of Katherine.
However, Dr Clements says the new owners are ‘working hard’ to generate support and funding from multiple levels of government and NGO stakeholders in the region to generate a sustainable solution built with a local workforce.
For practice manager Melanie Usher, the priority is to provide a sustainable general practice service to the wider Katherine community.
‘This practice needs to be accessible and viable in providing a service to everyone for the long term,’ she said. ‘We are looking at new initiatives … and are looking forward to supporting the Katherine community with their health needs in the near future.’
Following closure of the previous practice last year, an interim general practice service was set up with a local GP to operate one day a week out of an aged care facility. The service experienced high demand and proved to be a positive step forward, but the community remained under-serviced in terms of healthcare access.
Although the implementation of telehealth also filled some healthcare gaps in the rural community, Katherine’s GP at the time lamented that he was ‘discouraged by the amended requirement for a patient to have visited the practice face-to-face in the previous 12 months’ – presenting barriers to those in remote and very remote areas.
Dr Clements agrees that although telehealth has its benefits, more local GPs are needed to address the rural workforce shortage, in line with Collingrove Agreement. He believes that long-term models of telehealth should not impact the viability of local general practices in small communities, nor place further strain on local hospitals.
‘We know telehealth is best delivered by clinicians who know the individual and their family and their community, so is best hosted from the GPs who are also in that community,’ he said.
‘Telehealth from outside the community may continue to play an important role to augment local services, like it does in other remote communities, but a locally delivered service should always be the main goal.
Evidence is clear that primary care delivered by GPs in the community treats and prevents morbidity and mortality in the most efficient and effective way. Local residents can expect improvements in the diagnosis and management of everything from their mental health care to chronic disease management and preventive healthcare.’
newsGP understands the Katherine Family Medical Practice will be owned by five local families who have run local businesses in Katherine for several years and are well known to the community.
Rural Doctors Association of Australia CEO, Peta Rutherford, has also welcomed the news.
She said Katherine deserved to have a permanent local GP presence and praised the NT PHN, Katherine Hospital and health professionals in the town for their commitment.

‘To have a GP clinic in a community the size of Katherine is absolutely critically important,’ Ms Rutherford said.

‘With the prevalence of chronic disease and other health conditions that exist within rural and remote Australia, the GP is absolutely at the heart of providing quality and comprehensive care to communities like Katherine.

‘There’s an opportunity to create a sustainable GP environment there now, and there may be opportunities ... for training and good clinical experience for doctors, especially for junior doctors who will hopefully stay in Katherine in the longer term as well.’
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Dr Bruce Louis Coppa   19/01/2021 7:36:45 AM

You haven't answered the most pertinent issue. How is it funded and what sort of income are the owner and GPs making?
As a guide working for AMS's gives one at least 6 weeks paid annual, leave plenty of paid study leave and from memory an income of at least $250,000 pa plus , of course, employer paid super. And virtually no on call or after hours work.This is the benchmark for working as a GP in the NT

Dr Cynthia Filipcic   19/01/2021 10:25:06 PM

Hopefully this venture is successful and sets the benchmark for other rural communities to follow suit.
With regards to Ms. Rutherford’s statement, perhaps she is not aware of the history. Having trained as a GP in Katherine I would like to say that it has always been a good place for training and clinical experience. But lessons need to be learned to entice rural doctors to stay - I think that is a major issue and hopefully a solution can be found.

Dr Peter JD Spafford   21/01/2021 12:41:04 PM

It is fantastic news and I will be supporting the new clinic as much as I can. Recruitment of GPs here will be the major issue still and I wish them all the best doing what I failed to achieve.