Trainee rural general practitioners will have the opportunity to work in one regional South Australian community for five years while they complete their qualifications – with hopes the program will see the doctors stay on in the same towns once they finish training.

If successful, it would quadruple the amount of GPs in the state’s regions.

Premier Peter Malinauskas announced the initiative in Eyre Peninsula, where there has been a history of critical shortages of doctors in small towns.

He said he had read a report which said Australia would be 10,000 GPs short in the next six years.

The Premier said the program would allow trainees to establish roots in rural areas, which meant they were more likely to stay in the towns once they became qualified.

“If [the trainees] are raised and trained in regional communities in a sustained way over a five-year period, they are much more likely to stay committed to those communities, rather than moving back to the city or to another location,” he said.

Trainee doctors had previously started on new contracts with different employers as they moved through different placements, meaning they did not receive benefits like leave and remuneration benefits.

Many placements at hospitals like Port Lincoln lasted for only a few weeks or months.

Under a reformed single-employer model program, trainee doctors will be able to work for SA Health as salaried employees through their whole training tenure.

The Premier said the program — which has been trialled in the Riverland as well as other parts of Australia and will begin in January next year — would support an extra 60 trainee GPs in the state.

It will be available in regional areas including the Barossa Hills and Fleurieu; Eyre and Far North; Flinders and Upper North; Yorke and Northern; and the Limestone Coast.

Program aims to entice doctors to the regions

Health Minister Chris Picton said the program was an “incredibly attractive” proposition for junior doctors to move rurally for work, as it removes previous barriers in the healthcare system.

“It enables them to work for SA Health with the payment it comes with and benefits like maternity leave, holiday leave and sick leave, long service leave … and to be able to work across hospitals and general practice,” he said.

Chris Picton says the government will add more hospital beds to ease pressure on the health system.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“[Before, this was not possible] because general practice is funded by a fee for service for the commonwealth, and the state government funds our doctors in hospitals separately.”

The partnership with the federal government will pull the funding together, meaning the state can employ doctors directly.

Riverland trial has revitalised established GPs

A trial of the program in the Riverland region has seen 20 junior GPs begin training since 2022.

Riverland Mallee Coorong Local Health Network CEO Wayne Champion said a wave of new young trainee doctors had revitalised older GPs in the district who had often worked as the only doctors in small towns – often on call at all hours.

“The GPs in the community have become excited, they can see a future for their businesses that they have invested their lives in,” he said.

“And they can see a pathway for patients who they’re committed to, in terms of continuity of clinical care beyond their own retirement.”

Dr Jerida Keane, who is part of the cohort, said working as a country doctor afforded a great work-life balance.

The single-employer model had been recommended to the National Rural Health Commissioner in December 2018, to address salary inequities for trainee GPs.

Premier confirms desal location at Billy Lights Point

During the Country Cabinet, the Premier also discussed another health issue – the concern that the Eyre Peninsula would run out of water by 2026 if did not build a desal plant by next year.

He confirmed it would go ahead with a Billy Lights Point location.

Hundreds of Port Lincoln community members attended a community forum with the state government during the Country Cabinet. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Adam Sheldon)

Mr Malinauskas said he understood people would be unhappy, however inaction by previous governments meant there was no alternative.

“[There have been] countless briefings, endless meetings, various options considered, independent advisers brought in – the whole kit and kaboodle,” he said.

“What’s ultimately informed the judgement in my mind of government to proceed with Billy Lights Point was that any failure to do so represented a material risk to this community running out of water.”

“The Uley Basin is running out of water quickly. There was prevarication and delay … We had to make a decision as quickly as possible.”

The Premier said his government had examined all options, including connecting the region to the proposed Northern Water project to avoid a project in Port Lincoln, but it was not possible.

“The number one issue apart from cost was actually timing,” he said.

“It would have been a massive disservice to this community if we had made a politically expedited decision to pursue an option that might not come to fruition and then have this community on water restrictions in the next few years and then running out of water.

“Had we done that you would be right to lynch us.”

The Premier said he and former water minister Susan Close had “scrutinised” all science presented to them by SA Water to make sure the data on the various sites was correct.

“We are satisfied this was the only option for the community,” he said.