Now and into the future: RACGP bushfire response

Harry Nespolon

8/01/2020 2:26:06 PM

President Dr Harry Nespolon provides an update on college efforts to assist on the ground and prepare for the long-term fallout of what is an unprecedented disaster.

Burnt town
Australia is in the midst of a climate change-induced public health crisis.

Australia is in the grip of a public health emergency.
Ongoing bushfires have cost lives, razed towns, ravaged millions of hectares of land and choked our largest cities.
The unprecedented scale of the disaster reinforces the need for a new approach to managing the health needs of affected people during emergencies, especially from a primary care perspective.
To that end, the RACGP has formulated a comprehensive strategy to tackle the challenges directly and support members, especially those working on the frontline.
Practical measures 
As a college, we are keenly aware of the incredible efforts already being undertaken by GPs in affected areas.
RACGP faculty chairs are implementing disaster response plans and working with local disaster management structures to determine the support and medical supplies needed in affected communities.
We are also working with local primary health networks (PHNs), state and federal governments, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) and other key stakeholders to ensure our efforts are not resulting in unnecessary duplication.
Another step we are considering is to fast track the finalisation of the Completion of Training document for those who are otherwise eligible for Fellowship and want to volunteer as locums. This process normally takes six to eight weeks, but would be expedited to a week for GPs who have completed their Fellowship training.
The RACGP has been in contact with Rural Workforce Agency networks to support GPs who are keen to provide locum services in areas impacted by bushfires, and we encourage any members hoping to volunteer to contact the New South Wales Rural Doctors Network and the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria.
Members living or working in impacted areas who have specific requests regarding accommodation, access to pharmaceutical supplies, access to an alternate place of practice or basic infrastructure support, should contact the RACGP on 1800 472 247 or email
GPs in need of support for personal health issues, including their mental health, or financial support and aid, can access an interim list of resources via our website. We will continue to update members as we have more information to share.
Government lobbying
The RACGP is urging the Federal Government to implement the following actions:

  • Prioritise requests for GPs to be allocated emergency provider numbers to work as locums in impacted areas to ensure we have GPs where they are most needed.
  • Ensure GPs are more included in emergency planning and responses at state and federal levels.
  • Establish financial supports for GPs providing patient services to impacted people and communities, including through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).
We are also pursuing further discussions with the Department of Health on the actions it is taking to ensure practices in affected communities can relocate or quickly access the additional medical and allied health workforce needed.
Aside from immediate health impacts, the bushfire crisis could also mean that some general practice registrars are unable to complete the required number of training hours or prepare properly for forthcoming exams. As such, we will work with Regional Training Organisations (RTOs) and the Government to ensure impacted registrars can access special consideration.
We will also take great care to determine whether any bushfires will impact locations for upcoming exams. The health of our members is our first priority, so if exams need to be moved to different locations or a later date this should happen.
Emergency planning
GPs have a vital role to play in helping communities in times of crisis, including bushfires, and need to be part of emergency planning and responses.
Efforts to embed GPs in the wider healthcare response to the fires have so far been frustrated due to the fact emergency planning is a state government matter, while general practice is covered by the Federal Government. The RACGP has consistently flagged these issues over the years and will continue to work with state emergency management structures to bridge this gap.
There are a raft of GP resources available on planning for, managing, and responding to disasters, while another important way RACGP staff and members can help affected communities is by donating to the official disaster funds for Victoria, NSW and SA.
Climate change
Anthropogenic climate change is real, and has precipitated a public health emergency. Practical solutions are needed.
Governments have a responsibility to protect the people they represent and the RACGP will continue to advocate for policies that mitigate the health risks of climate change at local, state, national and international levels.
As Australia’s most trusted profession, it is important for doctors to understand and communicate the causes, health risks and consequences of climate change, as well as potential mitigating actions and adaptation at individual and population levels.
The RACGP will continue to encourage GPs to have a key role in identifying, reducing and managing the adverse health effects climate change has on our patients, as well as advocating on their behalf for positive change in this space.
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