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Essential health service closes its doors after five-month search for staff

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An essential service in a Sunshine Coast hinterland community is the latest to fall victim to the staff shortage crisis, amid cries for a national overhaul to the healthcare system.

Struggling to find doctors and nurses to fill its general practice clinic, and after having job advertisements up for five months, Ochre Heath closed one of its centres in January.

It has meant patients who had previously attended the Montville practice will now need to travel to Maleny to see a doctor.

Speaking with Sunshine Coast News, Ochre Health Queensland regional manager Sean Dickson said while no permanent decision had been made on the future of the Montville practice, it was a sad reflection of an “across the board” issue many industries were facing.

He said potential candidates were not wanting to travel up to Montville for work, making it hard to fill the positions.

“We are nearly five months trying to recruit for a nurse, which has been really challenging,” Mr Dickson said.

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“We’re finding a lot of nurses don’t want to travel up to Montville and the pool of nurses and doctors that live locally is few and far between.

“It’s not unique to Montville. We have six practices on the Sunshine Coast and three Seek ads up for nurses just on the Sunshine Coast.”

Ochre Health has centres at Caloundra, Eumundi, Maleny, Noosa and Sippy Downs, and Mr Dickson said while it was not the answer, Montville patients were able to seek medical support 15 minutes down the road.

He said the Maleny practice also recently welcomed two new GPs and was accepting new patients.

“Behind the scenes we are still recruiting for doctors for our available positions, which is the priority,” Mr Dickson said.

“We are still trying to recruit for nurses, which is our second priority to support the patient.”

Mr Dickson said he had been speaking with local community leaders and Federal Member Andrew Wallace to discuss solutions for Montville so the closure would not be made permanent.

The Montville closure comes as a Medicare overhaul was thrust into the spotlight after medical peak bodies called for an urgent boost to bulk-billing incentives to improve patient care.

National Cabinet met last Friday for the first time in 2023 to discuss potential solutions.

Leaders considered recommendations from a Medicare taskforce report on measures to improve healthcare affordability and accessibility, support people with chronic health conditions and take pressure off hospitals.

The report included recommendations to improve access to general practice, use the health workforce better and improve the My Health Record system.

Mr Dickson said the “outdated” bulk-billing service – which had been around for 40 years – was not keeping up with current inflation, meaning many GPs had to increase out-of-pocket expenses to patients.

“We don’t want to limit the opportunity for a patient to see us, but the flip side is inflation, electricity rates and labour rates are going up,” he said.

Ochre Health Queensland regional manager, Sean Dickson.

“Medicare is not supporting the increased cost of maintaining or running a medical centre.

“That is not unique to Ochre, that is across the entire industry and it’s got to the point the out-of-pocket has increased to the patient.”

He said to allow the bulk-billing model to work in its intended form, the rebate would need to at least double.

This would allow GPs to continue providing gap-free health care to children under 16 and Department of Veterans’ Affairs cardholders, with discounted fees for pensioners, health care card holders and students with valid identification.

Federal Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace told SCN it was recently revealed that Australians’ average out-of-pocket costs to visit a GP is now $60.

He said the current Labor Government was prioritising the outer suburbs of capital cities, which was putting greater strains on existing primary health care systems in areas like the Sunshine Coast.

“Like many industries and professions across the country, our health sector on the Sunshine Coast is struggling to keep pace with demand, with fewer and fewer doctors and nurses,” Mr Wallace said.

“The Labor Government have ignored the needs of rural, regional and remote Australia by changing the Distribution Priority Areas for overseas-trained doctors.”

The Distribution Priority Area (DPA) classification identifies locations in Australia with a shortage of medical practitioners.

International medical graduates must work in a DPA to be eligible for Medicare.

The Buderim, Caloundra, Maroochy and Noosa areas have no DPA classification; Palmwoods and Nambour have partial classification; and Maleny, Mapleton and the Noosa Hinterland have full DPA classification.

Mr Wallace said 70 telehealth services had also been cut from Medicare, as well as access to mental health visits by half.

“This of course has a negative knock-on effect to the demands being placed upon our emergency departments and the cycle continues,” he said.

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