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Rural health workforce reaching breaking point


Rural health workers in many areas are under unsustainable pressure with reduced staff numbers due to COVID restrictions.

President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA), Dr John Hall, said that the workforce shortage cannot go on long-term, and health services will be increasingly impacted in many rural areas.

"Many, many rural medical services all across Australia are assisted and sustained by locum doctors, traveling specialists or regular FIFO or DIDO doctors or nursing staff.

"With the travel restrictions in place as they currently stand, there are hundreds of health workers that have experienced significant interruptions to their usual work schedules.

"These doctors and nurses keep the services available and combined with more staff away from work, because as soon as they have any cold or flu-like symptoms they have to stay away and take a COVID test, this is reducing some staffing levels to breaking point.

"Exemptions for health workers, as well as patients seeking medical care, are urgently needed across all states."

While the restrictions are felt most in border communities where it is completely normal to cross back and forth for work, medical or referral specialist care, many other rural and remote communities are starting to suffer with both their regular staff and locum support being affected for so long.

"For months now these doctors and nurses have been pulling extra shifts and been on-call at nights and weekends over long periods of time," Dr Hall said.

"Most rural doctors have just increased their workload, or continued on throughout without taking a break; however these demands are starting to take a toll.

"Six months into the pandemic and mental and physical fatigue is a growing concern, especially in the high-pressure environment created by COVID risk.

"For their own health and mental wellbeing, it is important that rural doctors be able to take a break from work, spend time with their family and just switch off, even if it's only for a few days.

"Particularly for Rural Generalists who provide critical services to their communities such as emergency, anaesthetics, obstetrics and surgery, it is going to be more difficult for them to find someone to fill in while they take time out.

"Much of the Rural Generalist locum workforce is highly mobile and it is very common for them to travel between multiple states.

"If you are a GP Obstetrician in a remote area and just want a weekend to yourself, the chances of you finding a locum to travel all that way to cover you for your short break is about as remote as the location itself.

"The longer the pandemic goes on, the bigger the problem will become," Dr Hall said.

"If these issues aren't resolved, doctors and nurses are going to burn out, services are going to be decreased and we are going to see an increase in non-COVID deaths due to decreased access to care.

"All states must urgently put in place medical exemptions for cross-border travel or more lives will be lost as a result of COVID - just not to the disease itself."