In the small Victorian border town of Casterton, the departure of a local doctor has increased pressure on an already overwhelmed healthcare system.
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- Casterton Hospital is urgently looking for a new GP to serve the area
- Merger not a consideration for health department, says hospital CEO
Casterton Coleraine Medical Center has announced that it will cease its visiting medical service within three months of the departure of clinic doctor Brian Coulson.
Dr Coulson’s departure from the clinic comes at a time when the health service is scrambling to find a long-term GP and follows the May departure of GP Linda Thompson.
The two townships in the region, 120 elderly care beds and a small hospital covering an area of 6,000 square kilometers are supported by the private medical practice.
The announcement means the city hospital, which serves around 4,000 people, will need a replacement GP to admit patients and visit area nursing homes.
Casterton Coleraine Medical Center continues to rely on locums to fill gaps in medical care.
Casterton Memorial Hospital chief executive Owen Stephens told the ABC the situation was difficult.
“It left us thinking, what are we going to do from here?” he said.
“As every other rural area has experienced, it is very difficult to attract staff and when it comes to GPs it is even more difficult.
“We are certainly concerned about what we can attract and who we can attract, but we will do our best to ensure continuity of services at the hospital.
“What we will continue to do is provide all the specific emergency care we can from our organization and also be on the lookout for any GPs who would like to join the area.”
“The system is down”
Brian and Coralie Coulson, husband and wife, arrived in Coleraine in 1981 to start working at the Coleraine Medical Clinic.
Over the next 40 years, the couple set up a clinic in Casterton, saw doctors from around the world in their clinic and trained GPs across the country.
But the inability to attract doctors to the bush has led to difficulties with medical staff in the region and in rural Australia.
Medical services are calling for “serious” intervention by state and federal governments.
“It’s been pretty successful up until the last decade; a lot of things haven’t been handled well from a policy perspective in general practice,” said practice director Coralie Coulson.
“Gradually, there has been a decline in the attractiveness of going out to regional or rural areas where you take on this kind of double whammy of community general medicine in addition to running small rural hospitals.
“The pandemic has blown everything up. We’ve now gotten to this ridiculous stage where it’s just my husband, Brian, and locums or telehealth from Melbourne.
“We had to say it’s a dangerous workload and we can’t do it. The model doesn’t work.”
Staffing shortages plague hospitals
Area medical services have come together for crisis meetings to fill the impending void that will be left by Dr. Coulson’s departure.
But the Western District Health Service’s chief medical officer in Hamilton, Dale Ford, said everyone was dealing with their own understaffing.
Hamilton is currently short of five doctors.
Dr Ford said the problem stemmed from a range of issues including lack of training opportunities in regional areas, under-recruitment of GPs, low salaries for trainee GPs and lack of foreign workers due to COVID-19.
“If we look at the number of people who go into GP training, there are about 2,000 places a year and this year we’ve only filled about 1,300,” Dr Ford said.
“For Casterton and Coleraine there are well trained rural nurses and telehealth services but none of this will remove the real need for a well trained GP to be present in these areas at least two or three days a week.”
Similar to Casterton and Coleraine, Hamilton Base Hospital also did not directly employ general practitioners.
“We’re also short for almost the same reasons,” Dr. Ford said.
“Over the past two years we have lost a lot of doctors during the pandemic who have now been able to go to work in Melbourne and Geelong, and that has also left Hamilton short.”
Surrounding hospitals in Mount Gambier, Portland and Warrnambool told the ABC they would not fill the void for Casterton.
Mr Stephens implored any available GP to consider taking on the role.
“Casterton is a great community. We have great facilities and organizations and would love to hear from any GPs who would like to support us,” he said.
Casterton Coleraine Medical Center and Riverview Family Health in Casterton will continue to provide care in their private practices.
The Victoria Department of Health has been contacted by the ABC for comment.
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