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Western Australia’s most comprehensive survey of rural GPs has recorded a modest increase in the total number of doctors between 2021 and 2022.

The Rural General Practice in Western Australia: Annual Workforce Update showed a total of 911 GPs working in rural communities at 30 November 2022, compared
with 891 at 30 November 2021.

Rural Health West Chief Executive Officer Tim Shackleton said the information gathered in the update will be used by Rural Health West to inform its workforce planning, as well as identifying areas where policy decisions are having unintended consequences on the rural medical workforce.

“The data gathered through our surveys, and the trends identified in the update, are vital in guiding our advocacy efforts and helping us to influence government policy.”

“While any increase in numbers is always welcome, the data has also identified a number of not so positive trends,” Tim said.

According to the update, the biggest increase in doctor numbers was in outer-metropolitan regions. There was also a significant increase of fly-in-fly-out and drive-in-drive-out GPs, illustrating the shift away from the traditional model of the long-term resident country GP.

“This migration of GPs from rural areas to outer metropolitan locations and the increase in non-resident GPs is being driven by changes made to Distribution Priority Areas (DPA) in 2022. Those changes made it easier for GPs to claim the same benefits while working closer to the city, which has started to pull doctors away from more rural and remote communities.”

Other regional increases included 18 GPs in the South-West, a gain of four doctors in the Midwest, and three in the Kimberley.

These increases were offset by contractions in regions that are among some of the State’s most disadvantaged communities where there are higher than average adverse health outcomes.

These included the Wheatbelt which lost 10 doctors, the Goldfields which lost three GPs and two GPs in the Pilbara.

“What we saw over the reporting period was 113 GPs departing the rural and remote workforce with more than 30 per cent of those who departed returning to live
and work in Perth.

“We also recorded 21 GPs who retired from practice, which is the highest number in Rural Health West’s 30- year history.
“While these departures were offset by an additional 21 GP registrars who remained working in rural WA after attaining their Fellowship, we are acutely aware that it is impossible to replace the incredible knowledge and expertise these retiring doctors possessed.”

The update also showed a decline in the procedural workforce.

“There has been a decline in procedural GPs over the past few years, both in actual terms and as a proportion of the total rural GP workforce.

“This demonstrates a contraction in the breadth of healthcare that people can access locally.”

At time of publication, there were 89 GP vacancies listed with Rural Health West, of which 35 were high priority – a trend that had remained relatively consistent over the
past five years.

“Our data shows that vacancies for GPs in rural communities is still well behind supply, which is having an inevitable impact on the general health and wellbeing of people living in these communities.

“Despite Rural Health West’s ongoing efforts we simply cannot fill those vacancies in the current environment with the ongoing undersupply of GPs.

“It is critical that more is done at a policy and systems level to address these enduring challenges and ensure rural residents have equitable access to the same level
of care as their urban counterparts.”

Acknowledgement of Country