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Motion: Save Peterborough Medical Centre

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:35): I move:

That this council—

1. Notes the closure of the medical centre in Peterborough on 30 June 2021 due to a shortage of physicians;

2. Recognises that this is part of a concerning trend of the loss of permanent GPs in rural South Australia that has a harmful impact on local rural communities more broadly; and

3. Calls on the Marshall government to ensure there is suitable and targeted funding to fully and urgently implement the measures recommended by the Rural Health Workforce Strategy to sustain and grow South Australia’s future rural medical workforce.

Today, I rise to address the very concerning issue of the medical centre in Peterborough, which at this stage is set to close its doors on 30 June—the very end of the month we are in now—due to a shortage of physicians. The Mid North and many parts of rural South Australia have suffered from a shortage of doctors and health services for some time now, and the closure of this clinic will make an already dire situation much worse.

Peterborough is a small rural town some 250 kilometres north of Adelaide. It is home to approximately 1,400 people. When the clinic closes those people will have to travel to either Orroroo or Jamestown for medical services, both of which involve approximately an hour round trip. In fact, many are already doing this due to long waiting periods.

However, this travel is not feasible for quite a few of them. If they do not drive or if they cannot afford a taxi fare, in some cases their only option might be to catch one of the three weekly bus services to Port Pirie, some 100 kilometres away. Locals have already stated they will simply have to stop going to the doctor. That is not a position anyone in this very wealthy state of ours should find themselves in.

The proposed short-term solution is to rely on temporary locums to fill the gap until a more permanent solution is reached; however, there is already a shortage of locums in the area, and it has been acknowledged by the Rural Doctors Workforce Agency that there will be difficulty in maintaining this service consistently. I am informed there is also an issue regarding continuity of care, because when you do not have a permanent doctor and notes and files are passed from doctor to doctor and you see a different person each time, there is an increased chance of important facts and observations being missed. Patients are already taking it upon themselves to bring their own notes to appointments to ensure that does not happen, but that is not best practice for quality of care.

The clinic in Peterborough is currently the only one along the Barrier Highway in the 350 kilometres between Burra and Broken Hill. Not only will the closure of this medical centre make it much harder for locals to access necessary health and medical services, it will have an impact on those in the surrounding communities. It will put pressure on other medical services and centres in the Mid North that are already struggling with being understaffed and that have a large backlog of appointments, with some patients already having to wait months.

Across Jamestown, Orroroo, Peterborough and Booleroo there are only three full-time GPs. That is approximately one GP per 3,000 people. Broadly, in rural South Australia the number is around one GP per 1,200 people. For comparison, the federal government's aim is to have one GP per 900 people. Indeed, GPs in rural areas commonly work not only in the medical centre but also in the local hospital to attend to inpatient facilities and provide obstetric services or anaesthetics. There is a lot of responsibility and commitment those doctors may not be ready to undertake, especially if there is only one GP in the clinic.

This will have economic impacts. If people are already having to make the effort to travel to another town for medical services, they are likely to then do their grocery shopping and complete their other errands while they are in that other town to make it worth their while. That, of course, will have a negative effect on local businesses in Peterborough.

The state government has—and it is very welcome—established the Rural Health Workforce Strategy. That has launched various plans and programs, such as the Rural Generalist Program announced on 28 May this year. Funding has been allocated to various projects since 2018, with the goal of recruiting, training and developing professionals and volunteers and improving systems and equipment.

The Rural Doctors Association of South Australia has voiced various concerns with the Rural Health Workforce Strategy, however, including that it 'does not display a strong commitment to the pathway', only suggesting 'preparation for the rural generalist pathway'. It has pointed to inadequate funding to implement the multiple strategies and the consultation process 'leading to the collection of inaccurate data'. These are all quite concerning.

A study of medical professions that was published in May 2021 from Monash University found that the more students spent time in rural areas on their placements the more likely they were to accept a job in a rural area once they graduate. Perhaps including more rural placements and better supporting students undertaking them will entice those students to work in rural areas. Another option is to provide funding to regional universities and TAFEs so that they are an accessible local option and students are not forced to move into the metro areas to study in the first place.

A key hurdle once students are qualified, of course, is making a permanent GP an attractive option. Currently, locums are often paid at a higher rate than permanent doctors, so the financial incentive for doctors in rural areas is to be a locum who travels around to the different areas, rather than a permanent GP remaining in one town. The federal government's recent bulk billing incentive has been welcomed by GPs across Australia. Having greater incentives such as this one for doctors, especially young doctors, to become permanent GPs in rural areas and ensuring they have the support they need within the clinic is essential.

The closure of this clinic at Peterborough will have real tangible and negative impacts on the locals in that town and the surrounding communities. That is why I draw the attention of the council to this looming event. Unfortunately, Peterborough is far from the only rural community in South Australia facing this issue. Further north in Quorn the only GP has been unable to find a replacement as that GP prepares to retire. Locals in Hawker and Leigh Creek have their clinics open only a couple of days a week already; others are waiting up to three months for appointments in nearby Port Augusta.

This is a crisis, and it is not just a crisis in South Australia, it is a crisis right across our nation, and we need strong commitments and real action and increased funding to fix it. All South Australians have a right to accessible, adequate and affordable health care, and Peterborough needs a lifeline.

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