How many doctors are there in rural Australia?

19 December 2013

It is well known that rural and remote Australia does not have enough doctors. This is despite the fact that people in those areas have the greatest health need and the greatest challenges in accessing services.

So how many doctors are there in country areas? Surprisingly there is still no unequivocal evidence about the scale and location of doctor shortages. This means that policies relating to the issue may not be founded on accurate information. For one thing, GPs need to be clearly distinguished from medical practitioners who work in hospitals or who are specialists.

Even where GPs are concerned the numbers are not clear. The three main sources of data - the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Medicare data, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) - provide quite different numbers.

Some of the disparities are astounding. For example, the number of full-time equivalent GPs per 100,000 population in remote plus very remote areas in 2010-11 was either around 65 (from Medicare data), or around 130-140 (from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey coupled with information from the medical registration process).

The move to a single coordinating body for medical registration (AHPRA) will result in more accurate enumeration, and this can't come soon enough.

The situation is further confounded by the fact that GPs in different settings provide a different amount of 'doctoring' per day or per week. GPs in rural and remote areas tend to work in a different fashion to their city colleagues. They have to spend more time in transit from one job to another, particularly in remote areas. They have fewer specialists to refer patients on to and so may need to do more for themselves in many consultations. They are more likely to know the patient's family and circumstances.

Another complexity is that the GPs working in any given area are not fixed through time. A simple headcount on any day of the week or any week of the year may not be a valid estimation of the number of doctors in that place every day of the week or in every week of the year.

These issues are discussed in the NRHA Fact Sheet: How many doctors are there in rural Australia?

Media Enquiries: 

Tim Kelly, Chairperson 0438 011 383
Gordon Gregory,Executive Director 02 6285 4660

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