Family First Medical Centre staff Jennifer Ford, Claudia Danaher, Carrie Norval with Dr Wayne Norval.
Family First Medical Centre staff Jennifer Ford, Claudia Danaher, Carrie Norval with Dr Wayne Norval. Cody Fox

Bay doctor shortage leaves local lives on the line

A GP practice manager believes Hervey Bay has a chronic doctor shortage which if left unaddressed will eventually cost someone their life.

Carrie Norval says political roadblocks are to blame for the complex issue affecting the community while authorities insist ratios are based on population growth.

The Family First Medical Centre practice manager plans to lobby the Federal Government to bring back the rural incentive payment for GPs to retain trainees and to attract more GPs to the area for longer.

Ms Norval has already amassed about 130 signatures on a petition.

"We went from nine doctors who were booked out at the start of last year to just four this year but have the same number of patients," Ms Norval told the Chronicle.

"These doctors are in crisis care mode of trying to help as many patients as possible and we 100 per cent bulk bill but people still have to wait more than a week."

There are 83 general practitioners in Hervey Bay and 135 across the Fraser Coast. Eight practices bulk bill and the remainder offer mixed billing.

On paper, the ratio for Hervey Bay sits at one doctor to 630 patients, well above the Primary Health Network recommendation of 1:2000.

Ms Norval, who runs the practice with her doctor husband Wayne, said the bay's reputation as a training hotspot for registrar doctors studying to complete their general practitioner fellowship used to be the region's "lifeblood".

"Medicare closes the provider numbers of those on the GP training program to only 'rural areas' while they are being trained," she said.

Once qualified and with Medicare restrictions lifted, Ms Norval said most doctors moved back to the CBD, only to be replaced by the next training intake.

But Ms Norval said replenishment from that turnover changed when the Health Department removed Hervey Bay as a District of Workplace Shortage (DWS) area seven years ago and rezoned Hervey Bay as inner regional instead of rural.

"The number of training doctors has been reduced by 75 per cent due both to the number of doctors signing up to do GP training and because the training college is now focusing on sending those available doctors to more remote areas that have a 'bigger need'," Ms Norval said.

This means many other available doctors, including international doctors who used to be able to work here, are no longer able to do so under the Health Insurance Act.

A spokesman for Regional Services Minister Bridget McKenzie said DWS statistics, last updated in April last year, were based on the latest Medicare billing data and residential population data.

The spokesman said there were 19 registrars training in the region which had decreased since peaking in 2016.

Ms Norval said the problem was compounded by the absence of the rural incentive payment to be paid to GPs on top of their wages as an incentive to work in regional areas.

"The incentive, between $7000 and $12,000 a year, used to attract fellowship qualified doctors but no longer applies to Hervey Bay with the 'inner regional' reclassification," she said.

Ms McKenzie's spokesman said that since 2015 a new classification system meant Hervey Bay did not qualify for remuneration while Maryborough did.

Primary Health Network Wide Bay senior manager Kirsten Smith said the body had not received any complaints regarding a doctor shortage in Hervey Bay or long waiting times.

But Ms Smith did confirm "there are no incentives for GP registrars to relocate to areas like Hervey Bay".

Ms Norval said there were "many international doctors begging for this opportunity but the government blocks us because Hervey Bay is not a DWS area".