Recent headlines have claimed Australia is heading for an oversupply of doctors. But there’s also a critical shortage of general practitioners. What’s going on?
General practice has always been the cornerstone of Australia’s healthcare system. Almost all Australians visit a general practitioner at least once a year. In recent decades the scope of GPs’ clinical work has become more centred around the care of older people, more frequent management of chronic conditions, more referrals and test ordering.
This is a direct result of the Baby Boomer generation's ageing.
As well as a large generational proportion of the patient base ageing, the same is happening for the doctors who treat them. General practitioners have the highest proportion of doctors aged over 55 of any clinician group. And this generation is quickly heading towards retirement, if not already started.
The simple answer is no. While there are more medical students than there has ever been, fewer and fewer of them are choosing to go down the route of training to be a GP. So while the number of general practitioners has barely changed in the past 10 years, the number of doctors going into other specialities has grown rapidly.
In communities across Australia, the old guard of general practitioners is retiring and it is unclear who will take their place. Australia’s ageing population means there’s increased demand for doctors who are general practitioners, particularly in rural areas. These new vacancies can take years to fill and on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, there are so many vacancies for GPs that the situation has become critical. Without a permanent local GP, many communities are serviced by locum doctors — fly-in fly-out doctors that rotate on a weekly basis. This can work fine on a temporarily but there is a serious need to find more permanent solutions.
In 2020, a report from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) found the national shortage of GPs was 860, but if nothing is done to attract or retain the workforce, the number could blow out to around 10,600 by 2031-32.
The same factors are contributing to a mass shortage of GPs in rural areas. Burnout and an ageing workforce are being attributed to the heightened rural doctor shortage. With the rural GP shortage reaching a crisis point, with almost three times more medical graduates are needed in general practice, experts say.
In a bid to combat this, we are seeing high locum rates in remote areas as practices try to encourage doctors to choose rural over metropolitan areas.
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