‘The stakes are higher for those who can’t afford health services’

Jolyon Attwooll

24/01/2023 4:44:56 PM

Drs Tim Senior and Liz Sturgiss are the driving force behind a new group for GPs working in deprived communities. Here they tell newsGP why.

Drs Liz Sturgiss and Tim Senior
Drs Liz Sturgiss and Tim Senior are the co-founders of the new Specific Interest Group, which aims to help those involved in a particularly challenging area of general practice.

The statistics cannot tell the individual tales. Even so, the latest Australia Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) figures present a stark story.
If you live in one of Australia’s lowest socioeconomic areas, you are more than twice as likely to die from an avoidable cause than someone living in a well-to-do area.
Your life expectancy is also significantly lower – take away on average 5.9 years for a man and 3.9 years if you are a woman.
For GPs working in areas of poverty or in communities with pockets of deprivation, such is the striking reality of the odds stacked against their patients’ health.
The co-founder of the college’s new Deprivation and Poverty Specific Interest Group, Dr Tim Senior, is only too aware of that challenge – and says one of his motivations for setting up the group is to support those working every day to address those health inequities.
‘It’s hard work, it can be really rewarding, but people can feel that they’re quite isolated,’ Dr Senior told newsGP.
‘We wanted to set up a group that would allow those GPs to feel a connection with other GPs.’
For this Specific Interests group, there are two founders – a testament to the shared passion both Dr Senior and co-founder Dr Liz Sturgiss, a GP and primary care researcher, have for the issue.
Both Drs Senior and Sturgiss cite General Practitioners at the Deep End, a grassroots group that started in Scotland to boost support, advocacy and research opportunities for general practice in disadvantaged areas, as a source of inspiration.
‘It is usually focussed on local regions, and we wanted to look at something with a national focus,’ Dr Sturgiss told newsGP.
‘The college seemed like the best avenue for this.
‘GPs working in areas of severe socioeconomic disadvantage have high rates of burnout and stress.
‘Peer support is a way to mitigate some of this risk in the area.’
Dr Senior, who works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, said he recognised the descriptions in the Scottish GPs at the Deep End group despite the distance and different cultural circumstances.
‘I was reading this on the other side of the world in Australia thinking this is the same work that I’m doing,’ he said.
‘[I remember] being really struck by what they were describing and [that] the life expectancy differences … were attributable to poverty.
‘I’m thinking “there’s something in that” where I’m seeing the same problems.
‘In Aboriginal Health, they have the overlay of racism, colonisation and the Stolen Generation, and that provides a whole extra level of complexity.
‘But there’s also no doubt that deprivation and poverty play a real role for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well.’
He notes a number of other overlaps the new Specific Interests group has, including with rural and remote areas and refugee health – but also says its relevance for general practice goes wider still.
‘Some are just doing good general practice in communities that don’t have many resources, with patients who can’t afford to pay and have multiple problems,’ he said.
According to Dr Senior, the new group has arrived at a timely moment with the shift to a new Continuous Professional Development (CPD) system.
‘As part of that, health equity is one of the learning areas that GPs need to become involved in,’ he said.
‘The timing of this group will allow a wider range of health equity education to be done within the college across all the areas of the CPD.’
Dr Sturgiss said she was ‘really thrilled’ at the support the college has given the new group and is looking forward to being part of policy discussions.
But what about the larger question on how far health equity can ever truly be achieved? Despite the current discrepancies, Dr Senior remains an optimist.
He points to commitments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and says there is ‘a real awareness’ of equity issues in rural and remote Australia and the ‘profound’ workforce and access crises there, as well as for NDIS patients.
‘I think [health equity] is achievable, or I probably wouldn’t be doing it,’ he said.  
‘I don’t think it’s that hard. We know the things that we need to do, and it’s just having the political will to do that sort of thing.
‘That comes down to persuasiveness and advocacy and making sure that people affected by policy changes have a voice.’

Editor's note: This article was amended to clarify that Drs Senior and Sturgiss are the co-founders rather than the co-chairs.
Join the Deprivation and Poverty Specific Interest group, or any other SI groups, via the RACGP’s online membership form.

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