When nine doctors left one town in his regional Victorian electorate, Federal Minister Andrew Broad was baffled.
“The packages that are being offered are in the tune of $400,000, plus a rent-free house, plus a car,” he said.
So why is rural life so unattractive to Australian GPs? And why are they being offered such lucrative packages?
Dr Donna O’Kane said her family was “totally set up for life” after 10 years of work in remote communities of Queensland and the Northern Territory.
The package to work as a GP on Groote Eylandt included $500,000, a house, car, electricity, phone, internet, flights and three months’ holidays.
But the mother-of-two said her interest in the job had very little to do with money.
“The work’s the easiest part of your life.”
Island life came with many challenges, like the extreme heat that forced the O’Kanes inside for most of the day.
When the barge failed to arrive from the mainland, the young family could go six weeks without supplies like meat.
“We didn’t eat any salads the whole time we were away, we only eat frozen vegetables,” Dr O’Kane said.
“Your milk is always rotten. There was no hairdresser, nowhere to get your legs waxed, nowhere to buy socks and undies. All those little things.”
Other things, like her family’s safety, were not so little.
“It’s not the safest place. I had a cricket bat next to my bed all the time,” she said.
“You definitely don’t have any alcohol in your house.”
There are no police officers on the island, so when a riot broke out Dr O’Kane’s clinic would go into lockdown and wait for help from the mainland.
“A couple of people died and I remember coming home at 10 or 11:00pm covered in blood,” she said.
“[My sons] were out on a scout camp, just camping in town.
After another fight, Dr O’Kane attended to a dead body just 200 metres from where her sons were playing.
“I didn’t even go to the dead man, I just said ‘can you get our kids out of here in case this goes up in spears again’,” she said.
“It takes a special person to stay in these places.”
Even with the challenges, Dr O’Kane said the rewards far outweighed the problems, providing her family invaluable life experiences and treasured memories.
Rural GP clinics ‘unviable’
Rural hospitals have also been known to offer $400,000 packages, but doctors must be on call 24 hours a day.
Dr Amjad Hafizullah declined a lucrative hospital-based package, instead seeking work-life balance by taking over a GP clinic in rural Victoria.
The clinic is entirely dependent on Medicare rebates and the Federal Government’s bulk-billing payments.
Dr Hafizullah said he was allowed to charge patients an additional fee but chooses not to.
The Government announced a freeze of Medicare rebates in 2014, meaning Dr Hafizullah’s clinic is still being reimbursed the same rate to see patients nearly four years on.
Meanwhile, the cost of running the clinic has increased dramatically.
Dr Hafizullah said his income had been cut by 40 per cent.
“Until the Government started freezing Medicare [rebates] we were really well off. Now we are really struggling,” he said.
“Sometimes we think of packing up and going somewhere else. And that’s why some of the clinics in small towns have closed down.”
Even though he would often work 60-hour weeks, Dr Rob Grenfell “loved” running a GP clinic in western Victoria’s Natimuk.
But after 15 years he too said the practice became unviable.
“The nails were hammered in the coffin when the Medicare rebate was frozen.”
Hours increase with rate freeze
Dr Garry Matthews is a specialist rural GP with training in emergency obstetric and anaesthetics.
He operates as a contractor, dividing his work week between a regional clinic, hospital and aged care facility.
To earn $400,000 he would have to work full-time hours plus every second weekend, on-call two nights of the week and cut his holidays.
“I would then have no time to complete my mandatory professional development training,” he said.
Dr Matthews said his love of rural medicine was the sole reason he was working in a regional town.