The alarming extent of WA's doctor shortage has been revealed, with figures showing the State needs 1000 full-time GPs, or 68 per cent more, to meet the unrelenting demand.
A health policy forum in Perth this week was told the severe shortfall was adding to the unprecedented rise in people seeking treatment at Perth's hospital emergency departments.
The WA Health Department said there were 1461 full-time equivalent GPs in 2010-11 but a conservative estimate suggested the State needed 2461.
The department has offered to help boost a recruitment drive to attract more overseas-trained GPs, including those destined for private clinics, and said local GPs who worked part-time or casual should be encouraged to work more hours.
It admitted that a significant increase in the supply of GPs was likely to be unachievable, at least in the short term, because of WA's rapidly growing population.
Australian Medical Association WA president Richard Choong told the Australasian College of Health Service Management meeting that even against outdated medical workforce benchmarks, the State faced a shortfall of 279 GPs compared with the national average.
In reality, WA needed at least an extra 1000 FTE GPs.
"We don't want to be heavily reliant on international medical graduates in the long term, but with practices amalgamating and doctors retiring, we're increasingly struggling to meet the needs in some regions," he said. Dr Choong said areas where pressure for GPs was the tightest were aged care, which he labelled a disaster, and after-hours when GPs were not paid enough for their time.
"We don't have enough GPs, so we just don't have the capacity or the doctors to serve both day and night," he said.
State chief medical officer Gary Geelhoed, a former AMA president, said the GP shortage was affecting emergency departments, which were running out of capacity.
He said though reforms such as the four-hour rule had made hospitals more efficient and provided some breathing space, the demand was relentless.
Dr Geelhoed criticised the Commonwealth for neglecting general practice for too long and taking away incentives such as payments for after-hours appointments.
University of WA primary health care researcher David Whyatt told the forum it was a myth that the elderly were tying up emergency department beds, and instead it was young people with chronic diseases.