The communities fighting for their health

·3-min read

Many Australians know Mallacoota from the red-tinged, smoky photographs that came to symbolise the devastation of the Black Summer bushfires.

What is not as widely known is that ambulances in the remote Victorian village were stranded for six weeks after the fires, and its residents are three hours away from a major hospital.

More than two years after the fires the community of 1295 continues to recover, supported by a small but resilient local health workforce.

Since 2016, it has been reliant on a local charity, Mallacoota's Community Health and Infrastructure Resilience Fund, to attract and retain doctors and healthcare workers.

The fund's chair Robin Bryant has seen the service grow from having one doctor and a part-time registered nurse, to 13 staff including doctors, registered nurses, a dietician and youth workers.

Bryant, a former public servant, says getting the community involved in its own healthcare has been essential, with many supporting activism, fundraising and networking.

"It's become one big family and we're all dealing with people we know," Bryant told AAP at the National Rural Health conference in Brisbane.

But Mallacoota is again searching for another GP, after one long-serving doctor left for family reasons, halving the centre's ability to see patients.

"My doctor rang me yesterday and said 'We are one doctor away from disaster'," Bryant said.

The situation highlights the national problem of attracting medical workers to rural and remote areas for the long-term.

"When the news comes on, it says we've got health crisis. It's not a crisis, it's a bloody catastrophe," Bryant said.

"We've got to stop talking about what we're going to do, and start acting."

The conference has featured many examples of community-led health models, and recruitment organisations attracting doctors to country areas.

The Remote Vocational Training Scheme offers doctors an opportunity to attain their general practice fellowship, with structured distance education and mentoring, while living and working in rural and remote areas.

Chief executive Pat Giddings said about 500 doctors have gone through the program and achieved fellowships to serve in 350 remote communities in its 23 year history.

In 2018, it piloted a targeted recruitment program in Mallacoota and Cunnamulla in Queensland, having previously only accepted doctors who were already employed in remote areas.

Under that program, 18 doctors have been retained in 24 remote towns, including Mount Isa in Queensland, the Northern Territory Top End, Fitzroy Crossing in WA, Wentworth in far west NSW, and two towns in Tasmania.

The doctors are split evenly between professionals trained overseas and in Australia.

"This is a successful model, and a potential solution, but not the only solution" Dr Giddings told the conference.

"The key to success has been the locations where we've had ... strong support from grassroots organisations, and community responsiveness.

"Communities that think 'the government is going to fix this' or 'someone else is going to fix this' - it doesn't and they don't thrive."

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