Health professionals, health networks and local governments across South Australia’s Northern Eyre Peninsula are uniting to find ways to build the region’s health workforce.
Dentists, doctors, key local health networks and local governments have united to form the Northern Eyre Peninsula Health Alliance (NEPHA). Their goal is to collaborate to attract and keep health and allied health professionals in the 30,000 sq km region whose 9000 residents have scant access to a local doctor, and where dentists, physiotherapists, psychologists and other allied health services come and go. The region takes in Cowell, Cleve, Kimba, Wudinna, Elliston, Streaky Bay and surrounding areas.
Key drivers of the Northern Eyre Peninsula Health Alliance, Cleve Dentist Dr Cindy Dennis and Wudinna GP Dr Scott Lewis, said they are committed to working in the region and felt driven to find ways for local people to get the care they need equitably.
Dr Dennis said simply by defining the need and understanding what attracts professionals to work in the regions, she was able to build her practice from near closure to now offer two dentists, two hygienists and a dental assistant in Cleve, 530km west of Adelaide.
Dr Lewis, who’s been Wudinna’s doctor for 11 years and feels a vocational dedication to his community, said the biggest blocker for doctors coming to the area was fear of the unknown. He says the NEPHA wants to change this.
“The biggest thing is to give rural practice a try, whether that’s for six or 12 months. What I’ve found is that there’s a much stronger sense of community and a broader social circle in this area than in the city. It’s a very supportive environment and we need to communicate this into GP training schools.”
Dr Dennis said the NEPHA was clear in its focus.
“Our first goal is to work out which health services and professionals are needed where and then promote our region through recruitment and training networks so we can attract these professionals,” she said.
“We know from our own experiences as health professionals and community leaders that our area has much to offer those who want to work with communities to really make a difference to people’s lives.
“We’re not waiting for others to fix this gap. We know by working together across our professions within our communities and with enough support, we can do this ourselves.
What NEPHA is doing contributes directly to State and National rural health initiatives. We have taken the first steps and are now requesting $160K over 12 months, to get traction on projects that will demonstrate improvements in rural health and save the Governments money.”
The region’s need, especially for doctors, is urgent. Locums for all health professions do not necessarily offer affordable continuity of service which is crucial in rural care.
“At a ratio of one doctor to 900 people, we are four GPs short across the Northern Eyre Peninsula,” Dr Lewis said.
Dr Dennis is also concerned that there is no “plan B” for the succession of many existing private health practitioners who are finding viability an ongoing challenge.
The alliance was first mooted in April when a group met to discuss the Northern Eyre Peninsula’s critical health needs and their frustrations about the challenges they face to provide their communities with access to health services locally and viably.
To date key contributors, alongside Drs Dennis and Lewis, are Kimba District Council Mayor Dean Johnson and CEO Deb Larwood, Cleve District Council Mayor Phil Cameron, Wudinna District Council Mayor Eleanor Scholz, Dental Hygienists Association of South Australia Chair Lyn Carman and the Eyre and Far North Local Health Network’s Regional Director of Medical Services Dr Susan Merrett and CEO Verity Paterson.
Dr Dennis said the NEPHA already had strong support from South Australia’s Rural Remote Oral Health Coalition (RROHC) which formed in December 2018, to tackle a dental services gap that’s leaving rural and remote people in much poorer oral health than city people and costing the state heavily through preventable emergency and hospital admissions.
Both the NEPHA and RROHC are doing the work that the State SA Minister for Health and Wellbeing, Stephen Wade has asked for in the Draft State Oral Health Plan.
The NEPHA has also earned attention nationally, with the peak body for rural, regional and remote health, the National Rural Health Alliance.
CEO Mark Diamond said NEPHA’s formation was a leading example of regions stepping up to tackle their own health workforce shortages and deserved Federal and State Government support.
“All across Australia, community organisations and health professionals are coming together in their regions to attract the people needed to ensure health and preventative health services are available in rural and remote areas,” Mr Diamond said.
“This is an especially great example. It’s led by locals and involves the communities themselves. This is great grassroots work.”
The NEPHA will continue to contribute directly to state and national rural health issues by working together and lobbying state and federal governments for financial support.