GPs and other essential health services must be supported in times of disaster

Royal Australian College of GPs

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is urging governments to provide immediate support to essential healthcare services in Lismore and surrounding communities still struggling to recover from devastating floods.

In a show of solidarity, the RACGP has joined with healthcare organisations including the Australian Medical Association, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, Pharmacy Guild, the Medical Staff Council Chair of Northern NSW Local Health District, and the Northern Rivers Doctors Network to call for federal and state support for the NSW Rural Doctor’s Network’s Healthcare Flood Recovery Grant Proposal.

RACGP President Adj. Professor Karen Price said urgent action was needed.

“The recent flood disaster in Lismore and surrounding Northern Rivers communities damaged 25 primary care services, including practices, dental surgeries, and a pharmacy, many of which were affected by previous floods,” she said.

“It’s deeply concerning that many of these essential healthcare services are now considering closing their doors and leaving the area, because they haven’t been able to access sufficient or timely grant funding, which they need to recover.

“The closure of these services would be devastating for the local communities they serve. The health statistics show regional and rural communities have poorer health outcomes, and this would make matters worse.

“I urge governments to provide immediate support to the healthcare services in need to ensure they can keep their doors open and continue caring for their patients.”

The RACGP President said the College has long been urging governments to implement reforms to assist GPs in caring for communities impacted by natural disasters.

“As Australia’s largest representative body for GPs across the country, the RACGP has long been saying general practice needs to be recognised as an essential service during disaster recovery,” she said.

“This is critical to ensure that practices are prioritised to receive immediate access to any support needed so they can rebuild, recover, and ensure ongoing access to care for their patients and communities.

“An emergency relief fund also needs to be set up for general practices and access to emergency funding must be easy and with minimal red tape. Because currently, general practice is not well supported by either the federal or state and territory governments in times of disaster.

“We have also been calling for GPs as frontline health providers to be formally recognised in any national natural disaster arrangements in Australia, and embedded in emergency plans across the country, especially in rural areas.

“GPs play a key role helping their communities in times of disaster, including in the immediate aftermath and throughout the recovery, but currently their involvement is informal. If general practice was properly included in disaster planning, including the planning, preparation, exercises and debriefing afterwards, it would make a real difference for communities.

“GPs in disaster areas also tell us that allowing unlimited prescribing of doctor’s bag medicines would make a real difference for patients. The PBS currently allows prescribers to supply certain medicines free of charge to patients for emergency use, but prescribers are restricted to a maximum quantity of medicines. This doesn’t make sense as we should be making access to care and prescribed medicines as easy as possible for those experiencing such hardship.”

RACGP NSW Chair Dr Charlotte Hespe said the floods in Lismore and surrounding communities had been devastating for essential healthcare services.

“These recent floods, coming so soon after previous disasters, have been absolutely devastating for the communities affected,” she said.

“The recovery has been slow and difficult for community members, and we also know it has been incredibly challenging for essential healthcare services, many of which had no flood insurance because it is unavailable or unaffordable.

“If essential healthcare services are forced to close because they can’t get the support they need, it will not only impact on the physical health of the people who need them, it will also have a profound impact on mental health.

“Residents in Lismore and surrounding areas continue to face significant mental health impacts from the flood disaster. If they lose the local GPs who are providing ongoing counselling and support, as well as referrals to other specialists when people need them, it will have a detrimental impact on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.

“Governments need to recognise the seriousness of this situation, and immediately provide the grant funding needed to the healthcare services that need it. Because sustainable healthcare services are fundamentally important to the ongoing health and wellbeing of communities across Australia.”

The RACGP’s submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements can be found here.

Details of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements’ (bushfire royal commission) final report, which included a recommendation backing calls from the RACGP for greater GP involvement in GP disaster management, can be found here.


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