I thank the member for Calare for raising this matter of public importance today. It is of critical importance, and I honestly believe there is not a person in the House who doesn’t agree with him. For most of my professional career, before I came to this place, I worked in rural health care, and I want to acknowledge the healthcare professionals that sit on the benches of this House, right across the House—doctors, nurses, me as a midwife, pharmacists, paediatric neurologists and so it goes on. We are all incredibly familiar with the complex challenges that face our medical workforce and, in particular, our rural medical workforce. This problem of a shortage of rural doctors is not a new problem; it’s one I’ve known about since I was a kid. It is right across the country, and it absolutely is affecting the communities I represent in Indi.

When we talk about a shortfall of doctors in regional Australia, we’re talking about GPs in private and community clinics. We’re talking about doctors in the wards of our hospitals. We’re talking about surgeons and specialists. It’s right across the board. We see it evidenced in the bills that rural hospitals are paying for locums to cover unfilled shifts. It would make your eyes water when you see those bills. We see it in the burn-out and, frankly, we see it in the despair of our rural doctors. It is heartbreaking. Post-COVID, rural and regional Australia has seen a net migration of around 11 per cent of people out of the cities and into the country and, quite frankly, they are shocked when they can’t even get on a waitlist for a local GP. They can’t believe that the books are closed. There is simply no more capacity. My office regularly hears from constituents who are deeply concerned by the long surgical waitlist—it makes the front page of the Border Mail on almost a weekly basis. It’s not because these hospitals aren’t trying their darndest. The health executives, the administrators and the staff specialists are doing their darndest, but they are under-resourced.

I say to this government: as you are negotiating new health agreements with the states around increased funding for hospitals, call them to account on this. Hold them to account on putting that funding towards rural health, rural hospitals and places on the border like Albury-Wodonga Health, who I represent and who are absolutely struggling under the burden of the demand that’s upon them.

The postcode that one lives in should not determine the health care that one receives. It’s so nice to say that but, frankly, it absolutely does in Australia. The rates of chronic disease are higher in rural areas and the outcomes are worse than in metropolitan areas, and it is all about access. We have many unrealised opportunities to create a prosperous and thriving life in rural and regional Australia, but to achieve this we absolutely have to have top-quality health care and we have to be able to get an appointment with a GP or a specialist when we need it. We absolutely need to look at other models of care. Yes, we’ve heard about urgent care centres—great, if you’ve got one—but the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, the Rural Health Alliance and others put forward multiple solutions about how we can remedy this problem. A couple of things are: providing maternity care, and study leave for GPs in private practice. We need to think innovatively about how we support the medical professionals that we have to stay in regional Australia.

I hear many reasons junior and mid-career doctors choose to undertake their training and specialist care in major cities. Often, the specialist training on offer is more limited and the specialist colleges are reluctant to accredit rural training. There are fewer senior doctors on shift, and there’s an expectation that junior doctors must work more independently in rural and regional hospitals than they otherwise would in the city, and it is impacting their mental health. We also need to support the family, the wives, the husbands and the partners of our rural doctors so that they, too, can find the jobs and the support that they need in rural and regional Australia. We need to invest in the public transport, better telecommunications and a fair share of housing investment if we want to train and retain our rural doctors.

Critically, we must nurture the talent that we have. The evidence that we have is that rural students who go into healthcare professions stay and are retained in rural Australia in medicine, nursing and allied health. Fund things like the collaborative centre for research and training at Albury-Wodonga Health, which will bring in defence, Charles Sturt University, La Trobe University, the University of New South Wales and our TAFEs. It will train and retain not just doctors but also our allied health and nursing professionals. I acknowledge the member for Cooper and the work she has done on the health team. We need a strong health team to support our rural doctors.

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