Pinjarra Doctors under threat as GP registrars are pushed out of region

'Running out of time': Dr Hendrik vander Walt, managing director Mala Pillay, and Dr Hannah Vorster. Photo: Claire Sadler.
'Running out of time': Dr Hendrik vander Walt, managing director Mala Pillay, and Dr Hannah Vorster. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Another medical clinic in Pinjarra is at risk of closing as the town struggles to attract doctors.

Murray Street practice, Pinjarra Doctors is pleading with the federal government to change a policy, which would leave them with only two doctors.

For over 11 years Pinjarra Doctors has provided care to thousands of patients from Pinjarra and surrounds.

But a federal government decision in 2019 to rezone the region as outer-metropolitan, instead of rural, has made it near-impossible for Pinjarra health service providers to attract and retain doctors, and could see Pinjarra Doctors struggle to deliver services from January.

The government reclassification means all practices in the Peel region can no longer use rural pathway GP registrars - doctors in training who are required to spend 18 months in rural regions, a policy designed to address shortfalls of doctors in rural areas.

For Pinjarra Doctors this means a drop from eight doctors to only two to service a patient base of around 10,000.

Pinjarra Doctors managing director Mala Pillay said the service had always struggled to attract GP registrars but now the situation was critical.

"We opened the practice in 2009 and by 2012 we had three doctors. Despite our efforts to advertise for doctors over the years, we haven't been able to secure any fully qualified unrestricted doctors willing to relocate to the area, as we do not compare to metropolitan areas," she said.

"We found a loophole to fill the workforce provision gap, which meant we could have up to six GP registrars, mainly on rural pathway, up until last intake in January 2021.

"With the reclassification of Pinjarra as outer-metropolitan that will no longer be possible as of December 31."

In a small community such as Pinjarra the debilitation of a second medical service would have devastating flow-on effects. Photo: Claire Sadler.

In a small community such as Pinjarra the debilitation of a second medical service would have devastating flow-on effects. Photo: Claire Sadler.

If Pinjarra can't get an exemption to the reclassification,the future of Pinjarra Doctors hangs in the balance.

"Come December 31 we will be left with two doctors with a database of over 10,000 patients, less doctors in Pinjarra than in 2004," Ms Pillay said.

"If we are not able to secure any changes, we will not be able to provide appointments to sustain a reasonable health care service provision for our patients.

"It's not fair. It's a decision the federal government has made with no real insight into to what Pinjarra looks like, medical service availability, its infrastructure, and what it has to offer. It remains rural."

In a small community such as Pinjarra the debilitation of a second medical service would have devastating flow-on effects.

Our principal doctors are working long hours to accommodate patients which will not be sustainable as a long-term solution with just two doctors.

Mala Pillay

Ms Pillay said Pinjarra Doctors was already booked out for a minimum of two weeks.

"Our patients do not understand our predicament. How could they?" she said.

"Our principal doctors are working long hours to accommodate patients which will not be sustainable as a long-term solution with just two doctors.

"We service the 70-bed Bedingfield aged care facility in Pinjarra and Lakeside. What will happen to our patients? They are mostly aged and frail and cannot travel.

"It means frequent use of the ambulance holding up the emergency services."

Pinjarra Doctors patients Sandra and Rob Biggs. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Pinjarra Doctors patients Sandra and Rob Biggs. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Rob Biggs, a patient at Pinjarra Doctors, said the loss of more doctors would make it difficult to book an appointment.

"It's hard enough getting a booking as it is. I've tried to get a booking here with my doctor to discuss a result for an MRI but they were booked out for two weeks," he said.

"I just wouldn't go if there were not enough doctors in Pinjarra because you wouldn't be able to get in anywhere," patient Sandra Biggs added.

The Shire of Murray shared the community's concerns about the consequences of having insufficient doctors in the region.

"It is obvious that Pinjarra is not part of the Perth metropolitan area and won't be for many years to come," Shire president David Bolt said.

"The Shire does not support this decision. The playing field is uneven. Our medical practices cannot viably compete with the Perth metropolitan area for doctor services.

"Closures will have a detrimental impact on local service delivery. A significant number of residents rely on these services and a reduction in doctor numbers will place stress on the system, particularly as we have an ageing population.

"From a regional perspective, this places further strain on the Peel Health Campus and emergency services."

The Shire of Murray is working with Canning MP Andrew Hastie to have the decision reconsidered. A meeting has been requested with the Health and Aged Care Minister Greg Hunt but a date is yet to be advised.

Mr Hastie said he had been lobbying for many months alongside the Shire of Murray to safeguard the future of Pinjarra Doctors.

"I've arranged for the minister's office and officials from the department to speak with the practice again this week. We need to find a way forward," he said.

Related:

Murray-Wellington MP Robyn Clarke also urged the federal government to reverse the decision and "do the right thing for our rural communities".

"These changes will be disastrous for Pinjarra and the surrounding communities that rely on the medical services in town," she said.

"They will also mean that people who can't get medical help in Pinjarra will have to go to Mandurah. Increasing wait times at hospitals and practices.

"I have raised these concerns with my federal Labor senator, Louise Pratt and her office."

With the end of the year just six months away, Ms Pillay said government representatives needed to intervene as a matter of urgency.

"I've written to every department, organisation and person I could think of in the health and workforce industry and had meetings with key decision makers from the Department of Health and other departments," she said.

"The responses received are mainly automated email replies of no value to help or change our predicament.

"Mr Hastie made the effort to come to Pinjarra Doctors to hear our plight and we await a response from his efforts at federal government level.

"We are running out of time as the clock is ticking."

More to come.