HEALTH professionals have called for an overhaul of the scheme that governs incentives for doctors to work in rural areas to address the medical workforce crisis small towns are facing.
It comes as northern region doctors – among 293 nationwide – have been told to return thousands of dollars each in incentives they were mistakenly overpaid.
The error has highlighted what the Rural Doctors Association calls a “seriously misguided” system.
Moree’s Les Woollard will have to give back $9000 because he was paid incentives for doctors working in areas considered more remote.
Under the classification system, Moree is classed as “outer regional” alongside cities such as Townsville and Cairns, which have populations of more than 160,000.
As a result, the same relocation and retention incentives apply to all.
“The whole classification system is such a joke,” Dr Woollard said.
“The money’s not the bother; it’s just that we have a federal health department and federal health minister that doesn’t recognise that the doctors in Moree have a different job to the doctors in Tamworth, Townsville and Cairns.”
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia has called for an urgent review of the system.
“Unfortunately, it ignores the fact that the handful of doctors in Moree are overworked, isolated, providing substantial after-hours emergency care, and struggling to meet patient loads, while the dozens of doctors in Townsville and Cairns are supported by large hospitals with well-staffed emergency facilities and specialist backup,” president Paul Mara said.
While Dr Woollard feels Moree is the best place he’s ever worked, he said young doctors would understandably choose a bigger, better-supported city over somewhere more remote, given they were offered the same incentives for both. He said the state government had not responded to their concerns either and in his last meeting with state Health Minister Jillian Skinner, Dr Woollard claimed she told him there was no extra funding that would go their way.
Dr Woollard received the letter informing him of the payment mistakes last week, a day after he worked 20 hours delivering premature babies, treating a new mother with serious bleeding, treating two unconscious patients and caring for terminally-ill people.
The classification system showed the government did not respect people living in rural areas, nor the doctors who cared for them, he said.
The doctors association has written to federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek to request a review.
“Incentives need to be better targeted to provide appropriate recognition for those doctors living and working in rural and remote areas,” Dr Mara said.