GPs signing up to provide emergency locum relief amid bushfires

Doug Hendrie

7/01/2020 3:46:29 PM

But demand in bushfire-stricken areas is expected to grow significantly.

Road closure sign
Road closures make accessing medical services in bushfire-affected areas that much more difficult. (Image: AAP)

Rural workforce agencies are calling for GPs to consider working as locums in bushfire-affected communities over the coming months in order to offer relief to local doctors.
Many GPs have expressed interest in recent days, with Rural Workforce Agency Victoria receiving 50 requests over the weekend. The agency’s Chief Executive Officer Trevor Carr told newsGP that coordination will be critical in responding to the unprecedented bushfire emergency.
‘In the middle of the crisis, those GPs who are already in situ are managing – but they’ll be fatigued very quickly and are possibly personally impacted as well,’ he said.
‘There’s a little bit of demand [for locums] already and it’s starting to trickle through now. It’s not just replacing current resources, but providing additional supports into those communities for three to six months afterwards as part of social rebuilding.
‘You won’t necessarily be choppered into Mallacoota in the next two days – that’s not required or achievable at this point in time – but GPs can tell us their availability over coming months for a week or two weeks’ locum work in places like Omeo and Bairnsdale; these are zones we’ll be looking to support.’
In the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, the need for healthcare changed from immediate responses to injuries to longer-term impacts, Mr Carr said.
‘Once the grief period takes hold, it impacts people in different ways and the range of mental health and psychosocial supports required becomes more apparent,’ he said.
Some GPs in fire-affected areas are already reporting emotional exhaustion as the long-lasting crisis shows no sign of slowing.

In a closed town
Melbourne GP Dr Clare Roczniok this week arrived in the bushfire-stricken Victorian town of Corryong under police and CFA escort.
She was originally meant to locum in Walwa, where she often works, but that town was under direct ember attack, so she was redirected to Corryong, near the New South Wales border.
The convoy moved through blackened fields and skirted fallen powerlines. Dead and dying livestock could be seen. The air was thick with smoke.
In the closed-off town, Dr Roczniok headed for the evacuated aged care centre, which would be her home for the two-week stint. She then started seeing patients. Asthma linked to the smoke, vomiting, and ordinarily stoic men in tears. A patient with sepsis who had to be evacuated.
‘People have lost homes and stock. Nearly everyone has been evacuated,’ Dr Roczniok told newsGP.
‘Farmers are trying to get back in now to feed stock. Some are having to shoot their own animals with burns, which is horrible. There are teams coming up to shoot the animals so farmers don’t have to.
‘There’s the normal rural emergencies at the moment, but there’s emotional trauma, too. Everyone is putting on a brave front and being resilient at the moment, but that sometimes cracks.
‘Everyone is really supportive and there’s a lot of kindness going around.’
The closest town to Corryong, Cudgewa, has been particularly badly hit, with many houses lost, and the town on generator power and experiencing a mobile phone blackout.
While the recent cool change has eased the fire threat, bad fire weather is expected later this week and may see the Corryong fire complex merge with the Snowy Mountains fire.
With the arrival of Dr Roczniok and another locum GP, the town’s regular GP, Dr Paul Dodds, is having a day’s rest for the first time in a week. He and his wife and dog are living in the town’s hospital – the safest place to be.
‘People who can go in and support those GPs who are under the pump will be greatly appreciated. I’ve relieved the GP who has been on call 24 hours a day for the last week,’ Dr Roczniok said. 
‘Having GPs in has been a great relief for him. Paul has been working really hard. We’ve been able to give him a break.’
Dr Roczniok said GPs with general skills can contribute significantly as part of the medical response team.
‘You don’t need to be a hero – you’re part of a team,’ she said. ‘You can expect a lot of support from colleagues. Wodonga Hospital has been as helpful as possible.
‘When you work rurally and ask for help, you get it.’
Emergency locum assistance
For GPs interested in providing emergency assistance, the contact details are below.
GPs who are interested in locum work in Victoria can contact the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria on 03 9349 7800 or
New South Wales
GPs interested in volunteering as locums in New South Wales can contact the New South Wales Rural Doctors Network on 02 4924 8000.
South Australia
GPs interested in providing emergency assistance can contact the Rural Doctors Workforce Agency on 08 8234 8277 or
GPs can also contact their local RACGP faculty office to express interest in locum work and have their details passed on to relevant agencies.
All rural workforce agencies are able to fast track the provider number process for GPs who need one for this specific purpose.
In addition, the Department of Health has advised that GPs in affected areas can contact their local Primary Health Network with any questions around the response to the fires.
At least 2300 GPs work in the current bushfire-affected areas across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Medico-legal concerns and record-keeping
With the news that many GPs are working in makeshift GP clinics in evacuation centres, questions have been raised around medical indemnity and medical records.
GP and MDA National medical educator Dr Genevieve Yates told newsGP that MDA National and MIPS have said they will fully indemnify their doctors for this work. Other insurers may have a different approach.
Dr Yates offers this advice to GPs helping with the bushfire response.
‘If you are undertaking emergency response work involving procedures or treatments which are outside what your medical indemnity policy usually covers, please check with your medical indemnity insurer [MII] to check that you will be covered for this work,’ she said.
‘It is important to take notes for every person you’ve consulted, even if no payment or billing is involved.
‘Try to get the name of the patients’ usual GP as part of the consultation and forward a copy of the notes to their usual GP when it is convenient to do so, acknowledging this may not be possible immediately.
‘If there are photocopying facilities available, give the patient a copy of the notes if practical and appropriate. Keep a copy of the notes yourself, preferably at the practice or hospital which your provider number is attached to, even if they are not for practice patients.
‘[Apply] the usual security requirements for medical records and for the usual length of time.’

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Dr Juanita Susan Ruiz   8/01/2020 8:50:03 AM

Would it help to collect all the sample medications from city GPS to help replenish the medications lost in the fire?
Most of us have supplies we don’t need, if so , is there somewhere to drop them off ?

Dr Marc Houghton Heyning   8/01/2020 10:57:36 AM

As a GP generalist I am sometimes frustrated by locums employed to fill gaps - these are paid large sums of money to perform poorly locally - not because of their poor skills, but because their base is usually metropolitan. They don't know the local geography, the local practices and local services available. Should we not consider that like the charities now refusing more goods, we should be coordinating funds to be allocated by the local affected doctors how THEY see the needs. If this is for locums, let them chose who will be best for their local needs. My suggestion is using the RDA (Aust) as the coordinating fund raiser and distributor rather than fragmentation between RACGP, AMA and other agencies. The charities are coordinting better than us professionals