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Pockets of sunshine amidst the storm for rural health

25th October 2022

The national issue of labour workforce shortages has made headlines recently. While this issue affects many industries, the deficit of health workers is often cited as a ‘crisis’. The recent ABC 4 Corners episode, ‘Breaking Point’ (17 October 2022), outlines the ‘chronic and worsening shortage of GPs’, with less than 14% of medical graduates taking up general practice, compared to 40% thirty years ago. While this situation presents a problem in major cities, in regional and remote areas such as Griffith, ABC journalist Adam Harvey describes the situation as “desperate”. 

Harvey paints a grim picture. He interviews Federal Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil about the backlog of skilled migrant visas as one solution. Then, after a visit to the town by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to address regional concerns, he asks Independent MP for Murray, Helen Dalton, “Did you hear anything that’s going to fix any of those problems?” Ms Dalton responded, “No, I did not… I think there was an opportunity lost.” 

The 4 Corners report appeared to be heavily expectant on the government to solve the labour shortages affecting multiple industries in Griffith. Yet, no consideration was given to the positive work being done to address this issue.  

Country road, far western NSW

A different perspective was provided by the CEO of NSW Rural Doctors Network (RDN), Richard Colbran, when Patrick Bell interviewed him on ABC New England on October 12, 2022. RDN has been discussing strategies to encourage and support GPs working in the region with Liverpool Plains Mayor Doug Hawkins. 

The RDN CEO points out that health, and the health conversation, aren’t traditionally part of a local government’s remit. However, councils and others have started to “put up their hands to explore this”, because, as Richard Colbran puts it, “at the end of the day, what are the things that make a rural community thrive and what role does health have in that?” 

The Rural Doctors Network is precisely that: a network that assists the set-up of healthcare professionals for success in their regional placements, ensuring the framework is in place around professional and personal factors so people can operate at the top of their scope. 

“We try to have two or three strategies going at once… it’s not about looking just to get a doctor… but looking at what we’ve already got in the communities, the local workers who are there already and trying to complement their effort,” Colbran said. 

“… one of the last things you want to do is create something that looks good on paper but then alienates or reduces the viability of someone who already lives in the town.” 

“Think what it would look like for yourself if you were coming into a community,” Colbran suggests. “It is a very competitive marketplace at the moment. Every town or LGA across Australia is looking to find people. 

“Working with each of the LGAs, we try to make sure the offering is compelling. How do we ensure that they’re set up to thrive when they come in, and how do we build a team-based approach? We don’t want people to feel isolated; it’s a strong continuity of care approach with the local region… what we call ‘deliberate team-based care’.” 

When asked if this approach takes some time to implement, Colbran said, “we try to have two or three strategies going at once, so we try to find a way we can help communities straight away, but this more developed approach does take time. There’s more work involved, but I don’t think it takes too long. You’re not talking three or four years; you’re talking six to twelve months. But it’s important to have the community behind that approach.” 

Signing people up and allocating them to communities quickly is a short-term approach. Whilst expectations still need to be managed, it’s a worthy investment to plan long term, to look into the needs of each community and find suitable clinicians with the right skillset for what the community needs. Planning long-term will have benefits not only for the health of rural communities but will also help attract and retain health professionals and their families.  

RDN’s efforts to support and sustain rural healthcare will be explored further by the RDN CEO Richard Colbran during his upcoming presentation at the Central West Women’s Forum titled ‘Improving Health Outcomes in Rural and Regional NSW’: 


When: 6-8 pm, Wednesday, November 3, 2022 

Where: CWA Hall, Robertson Park, Orange NSW 2800 

The discussion will include the following: 

  • strategies to improve health outcomes for women; 
  • examples of innovative approaches to overcome challenges to the delivery of services; and 
  • how we can move forward to ensure health outcomes for people who don't have access to metropolitan facilities. 


Image credit: Theo Clark Media

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