Lismore GP welcomes primary care disaster funding

Matt Woodley

20/02/2023 6:03:45 PM

Health service providers impacted by last year’s floods are set to share $5 million in government grants, but more support is likely needed.

Keen Street Clinic reopening
The Keen Street Clinic, which was completed gutted after last year’s floods, reopened in January. (Image: Supplied)

Almost one year ago to the day, Lismore and much of its surrounding areas were being devastated by torrential floods that had inundated large parts of eastern Australia in the wake of ‘biblical’ rain.
When the 14.4-metre floodwaters eventually receded, much of the town, including the local health providers, had no option other than to survey the damage and salvage whatever they could. 
Local general practice the Keen Street Clinic was no exception – despite having helped the community for more than 70 years, it was still struggling to cope with the fallout and its $2 million damage bill six months after the worst of the rain had stopped.
Fast forward to 3 January 2023, and the practice was back on its feet after rebuilding all that had been destroyed in the floods. However, while the physical repairs may have taken place, according to GP Dr Michele Blandford, there is still much to be done.
‘Our clinic went from providing in excess of 40,000 patient consults in the 12 months before the flood, to just 24,000 in the 12 months directly after,’ she told newsGP.
‘The two main contributing factors to these numbers were our lack of space and doctors to effectively run a full-time clinic, and the fact that our patients were putting their health needs aside to focus on their own flood recovery.
‘Coming up to the 12-month anniversary, we are pleased to be able to offer our full scope of services back to the community again … [but] the clinic, and the four practice owners, including myself, are still feeling the very heavy costs of the flood.’
Dr Blandford says the past 12 months have ‘really taken their toll’.
Not only did the practice’s income fall by more than $500,000, but they also had rebuild and refit the premises from the ground up, relocate their temporary clinic twice, and deal with staff departures and the associated costs of retraining.
It is why Dr Blandford says the new $5 million in disaster relief funding from the NSW and Federal governments is ‘very welcome’.
‘It will certainly be helpful in alleviating some of the pressure we are feeling with bills still outstanding,’ she said.
Announced late last week, the funding follows calls from the RACGP and other health groups, and will be made available to healthcare services in Lismore and the Northern Rivers region via grants of up to $150,000 each.
Responding to the news, college President Dr Nicole Higgins said the funding is a ‘welcome boost’ for affected healthcare services.
‘The people in this area have been through so much in recent years,’ she said.
‘By providing additional support to essential healthcare services in Lismore and surrounding communities still recovering from the devastating floods, we can help ensure patients get the care they need when they need it.’
Meanwhile, RACGP NSW and ACT Chair Professor Charlotte Hespe said the funding could not have come at a more important time.
‘The floods late last year caused immense damage to primary care services in Lismore and Northern Rivers communities, including practices, dental surgeries, and a pharmacy, and many of these services were also hit by previous floods,’ she said.
‘In the last few years, the flooding has been of such a scale that out of almost 70 local primary care providers, 58 practices, or close to 9 out of 10, reported some level of flood damage. Healthcare services lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment as well as infrastructure damage with some premises almost completely gutted.
‘This grant funding will provide much-needed assistance so that they can continue to deliver healthcare services, but I must stress that for many services they will still be a long way from a position that ensures long-term viability.’
It is a sentiment shared by Dr Blandford, who has seen the devastation in her community firsthand.
‘It is important from a community perspective that GPs, other specialists, pharmacists and allied health are being included in the funding allocation,’ she said.
‘However, whether $5 million is enough to cover the losses sustained across the local health sector remains to be seen.’
To that end, RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements, whose own practice was flooded in 2019, put out a special message for all those affected, while simultaneously warning that governments and communities need to be ready to deal with more natural disasters as they arise.
‘Floods and bushfires will become not only more frequent but also more intense as climate change intensifies,’ he said.
‘Governments must be prepared to get behind affected communities and ensure healthcare workers have the resources and support they need to get on with the job. When people have lost their homes, businesses and loved ones and have experienced trauma, they need access to healthcare without delay or hassle.
‘My message to all patients and healthcare workers in Lismore is that you are not forgotten, and we will continue fighting for you. Today’s announcement is a small but important step forward as the local area continues to recover.’
Funding for the grants will be provided to the North Coast Primary Health Network, where eligible providers are encouraged to apply for assistance.
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