Health centres operated by nurse practitioners say their exclusion from the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan is unfair to rural and regional Australians.

Key points:

  • Medical practices that do not have a GP in attendance more than 50 per cent of the time are excluded from phase 1B of the vaccine rollout
  • Regional Victorian nurse practitioner Di Thornton says many rural clinics struggle to attract GPs
  • 1,000 sites will be included in the phase 1B rollout but the AMA wants it broadened

Under the Federal Government’s phase 1B of the vaccine rollout, only accredited general practices — defined as health centres with a GP in attendance more than 50 per cent of the time — can administer the vaccine.

Di Thornton, a nurse practitioner who runs a health practice in the remote town of Murrayville in north-west Victoria, said the guidelines did not take into consideration the shortage of GPs in regional areas.

Her health practice has a GP just one day a week.

Ms Thornton said many of her 2,000 regular patients were elderly and would have to travel long distances to receive a vaccine under the current plans.

“Myself and my practice nurses are fully accredited immunisation providers — however, that’s not enough,” she said.

“Nobody thought about the smaller rural areas, I’m absolutely sure.”

Residents of towns like Murrayville, in Victoria’s Mallee region, may have to travel to be vaccinated.(ABC News: Grace Whiteside)

Reaching the regions

Phase 1B is intended to target the elderly and vulnerable, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and high-risk workers using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

National Rural Health Alliance chief executive Gabrielle O’Kane said rural and remote Australians should be among the first to receive a vaccine, as they had less access to medical services and a higher level of disease and injury than their metropolitan counterparts.

Like Ms Thornton, she said regional areas would need more people than just GPs trained to deliver vaccinations.

“Per head of population there aren’t as many doctors and nurse practitioners as in metropolitan areas, so it’s going to put pressure on the whole system,” Ms O’Kane said.

“We want to make sure that, because we have workforce shortages, there is a flexible workforce that can get to all of those smaller populations.”

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Matter of convenience

Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid was confident vulnerable citizens would not miss out in the early phases of vaccinations utilising only accredited general practices.

“The question is how convenient that will be,” he said.

“For people living in very small towns without medical practitioners, extra effort is going to have to be made to make sure vaccinations are available for all those vulnerable people.”

Omar Khorshid believes thousands more sites will need to be included in future rollouts of the vaccine.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Dr Korshid said GPs should be used primarily because they could handle questions of consent and deal with potential side effects of the vaccine, and were familiar with multi-dose vaccines.

He warned, however, that the number of sites for vaccinations needed to be increased after phase 1B to adequately serve regional Australia.

He said the Federal Government planned to have 1,000 sites for phase 1B.

“Clearly as we move into phase 2 we need thousands of sites to be involved.”

Travel not easy for all

Ms Thornton said for some of her vulnerable patients, travel could be an obstacle to receiving a priority vaccine.

“The 1B rollout is supposed to be aimed at the more vulnerable population. Most of our people who live in the rural and remote community are elderly — how are they going to get vaccinated?” she said.

“If we’re not doing it, how is the Government expecting that these people will be vaccinated, particularly those that can’t travel?

The Federal Department of Health has been contacted for comment.