Streaky Bay Medical Clinic board chair Jonas Woolford says he loses sleep some nights, wondering where the money will come from to pay for locums to fill a doctor shortage in the Eyre Peninsula town. 

Key points:

  • The Streaky Bay medical clinic is owned by an association of 300 community members
  • Some weeks there is no doctor because the community can’t afford to pay a locum, and hiring overseas doctor has proved too difficult
  • The clinic has budgeted to pay locums $2,300 a day, but misses out some weeks because state-funded clinics are paying more

He said some weeks, they couldn’t afford a doctor at all.

The clinic has struggled to find a permanent doctor since Rob Oswald retired in 2014 after 18 years serving the coastal farming community.

Since that time the clinic signed two permanent doctors but they both left after three and two year stints — one for family reasons and another citing burnout.

The District Council of Streaky Bay took on the clinic after Dr Oswald retired, and a year later handed it over to a private association of more than 300 community members — the Streaky Bay and Districts Medical Clinic Association.

The community did the same thing in the late 1960s to save its pub, and now the community hotel is a major fundraiser for local projects and services.

Streaky Bay Medical Clinic Association chair Jonas Woolford.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The clinic has now been without a permanent GP for almost a year and locum doctors are costing $15,000 a week.

Sleepless nights

It has been a stressful five years for the volunteers on the board of the association.

Mr Woolford said the private clinic competed with state government-funded health network facilities, which were now paying up to $2,800 per day to secure locums.

In the weeks that the Streaky Bay community has no GP, nursing staff and volunteer ambulance members face increased workloads and stress.

There was no doctor working the day of a fatal shark attack recently, although a doctor could not have saved the man who died.

There was no doctor in Streaky Bay when a local man was fatally attacked by a shark in November. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Adding to overall demand, the district’s population of 2,600 swells to 5,000 people for six to seven months of the year with tourists.

Locals are also concerned that the rotating door of locums and lack of continuity of care was putting lives at risk.

The population of Streaky Bay swells to about 5,000 people for up to seven months of the year.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

In the meantime, the council has propped up the association financially, and offered incentives for GPs to move to the town.

It has spent $1.2 million of ratepayers’ money on the clinic in the past four years.

“In the five years that I’ve been chair of the association, it has been incredibly stressful,” Mr Woolford said.

“There’s times when I have actually lost sleep at night, because you don’t know where that money, that funding, is going to come from.”

Streaky Bay offers tranquil seaside living.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Two of the past three GPs have remained living in Streaky Bay, and one now does locum work in another town.

Mr Woolford said there was no financial incentive for GPs to take up permanent positions in country clinics.

“The government has created a rod for its own back where they need these locums to service their hospitals — and they’re outbidding anyone else to get those GPs,” he said.

“When you’re a private clinic like we are, you just can’t compete when the local health network boards have access to the public purse.

“You can’t even blame the local health networks for paying the money that they are for locums as well, they have to play that hand that’s been dealt to them.”

Jonas Woolford and Mayor Travis Barber look over the annual report for the Streaky bay Medical Clinic.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

A spokesperson for SA Health said there was a nation-wide shortage of GPs, with primary health care the responsibility of the federal government.

“For our part, we are doing what we can to attract more doctors to country areas,” the spokesperson said.

“When there are workforce shortages in our facilities, local health networks sometimes engage locums to provide health services for regional and rural communities.”

Mr Woolford said there should be more locally trained doctors and efforts to ensure costs to study medicine were reduced.

Seeking solutions

The association spent $90,000 on recruiting a doctor from Ireland in the past few months only to have him pull out of the process due to a family illness, and frustration with the immigration requirements.

Mr Woolford said recruiting foreign doctors needed to be made easier.

Streaky Bay Mayor Travis Barber agreed, saying the community had invested heavily to attract a doctor.

“We’ve purchased a car for the locums, $200,000 in loans to keep the doors open, paying for staff et cetera,” Cr Barber said.

Streaky Bay Mayor Travis Barber.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

He said a short-term solution might be to have a paid paramedic position in the town.

“We’ve taken lots of ideas to the government — I’ve been to Canberra two or three times and tried to talk about things,” Cr Barber said.

“One of our big hurdling blocks at the moment is immigration.”

He said the red tape involved in recruiting a GP from overseas was frustrating, particularly as it required 12 months of training and then 12 months of supervision until they could begin to work by themselves in a rural practice.

“It’s actually insulting to a doctor who’s been a doctor for 15 years,” Cr Barber said.