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Prognosis negative: crunch time for GPs, patients in rural Australia

Country towns do not have the same access to medical services and facilities as their city counterparts -- and right now they're feeling it more than ever, reports Matilda Schier.

Rural GPS and patients are feeling the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their incomes and medical care as country areas face the triple whammy of inflation, low bulk-billing rates and poor access to medical services. The Salvation Army says the increase in non-discretionary spending -- basics such as housing, food and medical care -- is fuelling a hiddeninflation rate that is higher even than the the economy-wide consumer price index. “A cauliflower is increasing at a much greater rate than a pair of pearl earrings,” she said.

Rural areas face a shortage of medical facilities and bulk-billing doctors. (Photo: Pixabay)

In health care, the Medicare rebate has not kept pace with inflation, meaning the gap between those who can afford the cost of appointments and those who cannot is increasing. In addition, the bulk billing rate is in decline. Dr Catherine Foley, a rural GP, said people in rural areas were "generally poorer" and were struggling to afford medical costs.

Rural GPs are facing economic pressures and an ethical dilemma, says Dr Catherine Foley. (Photo: Supplied)

“We don’t have community health centres with primary care physicians,” she said.

Private clinics had been absorbing the costs for patients, and now an ethical crisis was looming, Dr Foley warned “Other clinics are asking pensioners and healthcare card holders for a gap fee,” she said, with patients expressing anxiety about the reduction of bulk-billing . “You don’t want to put the prices up because the people who can afford it are usually understanding but some really will struggle."

This dilemma has also caused medical professionals themselves to take cuts to their wages, work overtime, and deal with more stress and complications. “We have to consider our own sustainability," she said. Nationwide, the number of medical professionals pursuing general practice is decreasing. The Australian Medical Association has warned the country is facing an undersupply of general practitioners of around 10,600 by 2031. Dr Foley said she feared fewer people would become rural GPs because of the increasing job complexity and lower financial returns. “It’s a rewarding career, but it’s been starved in many ways."


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