Local GP practices in towns across the Mid North Coast will have more options and a larger pool of doctors to recruit from, following changes announced by the Federal government.
From January 1, 2022, there will be automatic access to the Distribution Priority Area (DPA) classification for regional and larger rural towns, to make it easier for areas to recruit more doctors.
The DPA classification identifies locations in Australia with a shortage of doctors. Currently, only rural and remote communities receive automatic DPA status, with other locations having to be assessed annually to see whether the health services for the population meet a service benchmark.
If access is under the benchmark, a town is classified as a DPA and clinics in that area can employ doctors subject to a moratorium, such as those who have trained overseas.
Students who have accepted a Commonwealth Supported Place in an Australian medical course in return for a commitment to work in a regional, rural and remote area at the end of their studies must also work in a DPA.
Federal Minister for Regional Health and Member for Lyne Dr David Gillespie said this change would provide a real difference to patients across the region.
"Short term, this means that our local practices can begin reaching out to overseas doctors who want to move to our region and practise here," Dr Gillespie said.
"This change begins from 1 January 2022, and I know that local practices will be working hard to take full advantage of this significant change."
Dr Gillespie said the DPA expansion would mean more regional and rural communities would have access to a GP in the short term.
"More rural and regional areas will be able to utilise the DPA system when recruiting doctors for their region, whether they be those who are wanting to move here from overseas or young doctors who have accepted a place in return for working in a regional area," Dr Gillespie said.
"This change will help ensure rural and regional areas have a choice of more doctors to work in their local communities, leading to increased access to GP and primary care services for many thousands of Australians in regional and rural communities."
The government will also invest in a significant incentive for eligible doctors and nurse practitioners to practice in rural, remote or very remote areas of Australia, by eliminating all or part of their Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) debt subject to meeting eligibility criteria.
Dr Gillespie said that incentivising doctors and nurse practitioners to live and work outside of metropolitan areas would help improve access to quality health care for local communities.
"This new initiative shows that our government is serious about supporting doctors who genuinely commit to practise in regional, rural and remote towns, which offers continuity of care, instead of having an over-reliance on locums," Dr Gillespie said.
"That's why we have committed to a number of immediate initiatives to reward doctors and nurse practitioners for working in regional, rural and remote Australia.
"The government is focused on delivering better outcomes, reducing access barriers and creating a flexible system that works for all Australians, regardless of where they live."
The University of Newcastle has welcomed the HECS-HELP debt refund incentive.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Alex Zelinsky AO said the announcement was further incentive for health practitioners to work in regional and rural areas.
"Health services are essential to the heart of rural and regional communities and our University has long played a key role in the health workforce of our regions," Professor Zelinsky said.
"We know our communities across regional and remote NSW are experiencing acute shortages of health practitioners, so today's news is a welcome boost.
"Addressing the workforce gap in these communities is complex and will require multiple initiatives, and the announcement by Minister Gillespie is an important and valuable step.
"We know through our University's Department of Rural Health that exposing people from metropolitan locations to rural practice results in more people staying in regional areas.
"Doctors, nurses and allied health staff have a significant HECS or HELP debt at the end of university - so this initiative is certainly one we welcome.
"We already deliver large numbers of clinical, allied health and nursing student placements as well as graduates across these regions - a key element of the workforces of towns from Moree to Coffs Harbour to Muswellbrook," Professor Zelinsky said.
Key figures from the University of Newcastle include:
The University said initiatives such as waiving HECS-HELP debt under the new scheme were a good step to support long-term workforce outcomes.
"We know that for some of our graduates, this incentive could add up to more than $100,000, which is huge for them. We hope that it helps to both build rural careers and reduce clinical turnover.
"Our University is absolutely committed to growing and enhancing the health workforce in rural, remote and regional NSW and improving health services outside of metro areas," Professor Zelinsky said.
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