Desperately seeking bush doctors

THE dire state of Australia’s rural health-care system will be revealed in a television series to be screened overseas.

Desperately Seeking Doctors , a three-part series starting on SBS next month, follows the experiences of doctors working in the bush.

They include GP Mary Fortune, who leaves Scotland to work in Kalgoorlie; Indian-born Alan Majid, who quits his small country town job four months into a three-year contract after losing his patience with local bureaucracy; and final year medical student Nabilah Islam, who is doing her rural practice term with him.

The Australian Medical Association hopes the series will shed light on challenges facing country doctors.

There are more than 1800 doctor vacancies in rural Australia – more than 200 in NSW. AMA president Rosanna Capolingua said it is likely they will never be filled.

"If you are in medicine you can’t open up shop at 9am and close at 5pm," Dr Capolingua said.

"You are on call 24/7. It’s enormously challenging. That said, it’s also very rewarding. There are many doctors who enjoy the engagement with their patients and the responsibility and the lifestyle."

However, the president of the Rural Doctors Association, NSW branch, Ian Kamerman, said many graduates spurn the bush in favour of a more stable appointment in the city or overseas.

Over the past 15 years, fewer than 5 per cent of Queensland and NSW medical graduates have worked in rural areas.

"The thing with rural doctors is it’s like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic," Dr Kamerman said. "If one person retires or leaves, we have to fill that spot by taking a doctor away from another country town. There is just a chronic shortage."

And the doctors who do stay in the bush are getting older – their average age is 55. The average age of specialists in the bush, such as anaesthetists, obstetricians and surgeons is near 60.

While the AMA is actively recruiting foreign doctors to work in rural areas by advertising in publications such as the British Medical Journal , Dr Kamerman is not sure overseas-trained doctors are the answer to the crisis.

"The last thing you want is to recruit someone from overseas with no orientation," he said.

"They end up being helicoptered into a remote town and they certainly find it a struggle."

Rural doctors work an average of 56 hours a week, with 40 per cent working more than 60 hours a week.