How many doctors are there in rural Australia?

Tuesday, 17 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.

But how many doctors are there in country areas? And how many more are needed?

Despite the focus given to GP shortages in rural and remote areas, there is still no unequivocal evidence about the scale and location of the problem. This means that policies relating to the issue may not be founded on accurate information, especially if GPs are not clearly distinguished from medical practitioners (or ‘doctors’).

Even when it is clear that it is GPs that are being counted, the numbers are not clear, with the primary sources - the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Medicare data, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) - providing quite different numbers. Some of the disparities are astounding.

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. The amount of 'doctoring' that can be done in, say, eight hours is affected by variables such as these.

Another complexity is that the GPs working in any given area are not fixed through time. Some GPs provide rural outreach services for one or more days a week; some access to GPs is provided via ‘fly-in, fly-out’ programs. A simple headcount of doctors in a rural town 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.

More about doctor numbers and the methods used for estimating their number, comparisons of access to GPs by remoteness, and some of the implications for policy are contained in our new Fact Sheet: How many doctors are there in rural Australia?

You may also wish to see the Media Release, How many doctors are there in rural Australia?

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