A federal government rule change will make it easier for practices in Wollongong to contract GPs, but practices in Dapto, Shellharbour and Warrawong miss out.
On July 21, Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler announced an update to the Distribution Priority Area (DPA), classifying Wollongong as a priority area.
This means that GPs trained in the UK, Ireland and Canada can relocate to Wollongong and start practising immediately.
GPs qualified in other countries who have moved to Australia and work in another regional area will also be able to move to Wollongong sooner. Previously, these GPs would have to wait up to 10 years before practising in Wollongong.
The change, however, does not apply to areas around Dapto, Port Kembla and most of the Shellharbour LGA.
Health Minister Mark Butler said the change was the delivery of an election commitment.
"These much-needed GPs will be able to move into these areas of need and get to work immediately, providing Australians with essential care close to home."
The change has been slammed by GP groups, including the Rural Chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).
"This will absolutely lead to an immediate migration of doctors out of rural and remote areas," RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements said.
President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia Dr Megan Belot said rural areas were already seeing a drain on doctors since the changes came in.
"We have already received very early indicators of how this policy change will wreak havoc in the bush," Dr Belot said.
"We are already desperately short of rural doctors, and the DPA expansion will pull the rug out from under many rural medical practices."
The change will go some way to addressing the GP shortage in areas like Wollongong, said Matthew Chudley, national GP recruitment and engagement manager at Ochre Health.
"It fixes problems for a few areas where there's been a quite obvious lack of doctors," he said. "So it's a win on that, but it doesn't fix the problem that we're still short of GPs."
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Currently, Australia has a shortage of GPs and the problem is only expected to get worse, with the country estimated to be short of nearly 10,000 GPs by 2030, equivalent to a quarter of the workforce.
While the number of graduates from medical schools in Australia continues to grow, reaching 3637 in 2019, according to the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand, general practice is becoming less attractive to local students.
To fill the gap, Australia imports hundreds of GPs a year, but Mr Chudley said the process of finding a GP to work in Australia is extremely onerous.
"It's a pretty arduous, expensive process."
According to the RACGP, it can take 18 months for visa applications for overseas doctors, and costs practices between $20,000 to $30,000 per GP.
When GPs do get to Australia, they are limited in where they can work. The rules are designed to ensure there are enough GPs in rural and remote areas, but have limited access to a GP workforce for areas such as Wollongong.
As Wollongong residents struggle to get appointments at medical centres, or find fewer GPs are bulk billing, this leads to more pressure on hospitals, as patients present at emergency departments with minor ailments.
The change to the DPA rules will alleviate some of this pressure, Mr Chudley said.
"If there's more supply of doctors, then it's going to be more competitive and people will have more options."
Medical centres and patients in areas not included in the rule change will however have to wait.
Whitlam MP Stephen Jones, said he would raise the issue of why areas such as Shellharbour and Albion Park were not included in the DPA with the Health Minister.
"Putting an artificial line in the sand doesn't make sense," he said.
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