INTRODUCTION: Currently Australia is experiencing a rural medical workforce shortage, especially among GPs. Strategies aimed at improving this shortage have generally been directed at small and remote rural communities (RRMA 4-7); however, longstanding GP shortages also continue in large (RRMA 3) rural communities. The key to the understanding the rural workforce is the perceptions of GPs themselves. This article compared GP perceptions of workforce shortages in Tamworth, New South Wales, Australia (an RRMA 3 town) with actual levels of workforce participation.
METHODS: A survey of 31/33 GPs working in the New South Wales town of Tamworth was conducted in 2005. Participating GPs were individually interviewed and were asked to estimate local GP workforce needs, calculate their weekly consulting time sessions and advise if they were accepting new patients. The survey was repeated 12 months later with the same cohort to track workforce change.
RESULTS: In May 2005 there were 27.8 full time equivalent (FTE) GPs working in Tamworth (population 42 000). In May 2006 this had risen to 31.5 FTE practitioners. Initially, all practitioners surveyed believed there was a workforce shortage, with no practice accepting new patients. This shortage was perceived to be >10 FTE GPs (6.5%), between 5-9 GPs (64.5%) and between 1-4 GPs by 29% of surveyed GPs. In June 2006 there were 31.5 FTE GPs working in Tamworth. The follow-up survey of 29 GPs revealed a significant shift in their perceptions with only 41.4% of GPs perceiving the shortage as 1-4 FTE GPs (p = 0.2), 17.2% between 5-9 GPs and 41.4% nil. No GPs in the follow-up survey perceived the shortage as >10. At the end of the 12 month study period, 8 of 17 practices were accepting new patients.
CONCLUSION: GP perceptions of shortage largely reflected concurrent workforce changes that occurred during the study period where there was a 12% improvement after a prolonged period of workforce stagnation. This change drove improvements in patient access and in many GPs' minds ameliorated much of the perceived shortage. Many factors may be involved, including the increased use of practice nurses, private billing and start-up capacity. General practitioner perceptions appear to be sensitive to workforce changes, with sampled GPs working with higher patient ratios than those seen as acceptable in metropolitan areas.
|Journal||Rural and Remote Health|
|Publication status||Published - 23 Aug 2007|