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Queensland and NSW spend big money on health, but will there be enough doctors to go around?

Written by Javed Iqbal

For the past two years, Toowoomba nurse Andrea Barber has had to work “outside the box” to deal with the growing number of patients.

By working in decades-old buildings, emergency room staff at Darling Downs Health treated nearly 15,000 patients in the last quarter, of which only 67 percent were transferred from an ambulance stretcher within 30 minutes.

“It’s very challenging when you’re working on an infrastructure that you can not expand within,” Ms Barber said.

There is enthusiasm among staff over the Queensland government’s decision to build a new hospital in the city’s northern suburbs, but it has made them wonder where all the workers will come from to fill it.

A woman with dark hair sits in the reception area and smiles.
Andrea Barber says the staff has worked “outside the box”.(Delivered: Darling Downs Health)

Gym

Construction on $ 1.3 billion facility begins as soon as the next fiscal year, with $ 20 million set aside for earthworks.

The project is expected to be completed in 2027, when the existing hospital in Toowoomba’s CBD will be transformed into an education and training center.

“It’s very important to our staff … they’ve worked under very difficult conditions, sometimes up to 100 percent capacity,” said Darling Downs Health Chairman Mike Horan.

A woman and two men, all formally dressed, stand in front of a brick building.
Annette Scott and Chairman of the Board Mike Horan (center).(ABC Southern Qld: David Chen)

Annette Scott, CEO of Darling Downs Health, said the hospital would attract more medical staff to the region.

“This announcement is a tonic to our staff and provides hope and opportunity for those people who are eager to potentially look at Darling Downs as an area to move to,” she said.

The hospital has made models for the number of staff needed to cover the extra 118 beds, but it will not release it.

But Ms Scott said the opportunities that came with new facilities would attract more staff.

“Clinicians are looking for more than just the ability to offer care,” she said.

Health financing

The new hospital is one of several commitments from the Palaszczuk government, with new facilities also to be built in Bundaberg and Coomera.

The government also promises to hire an additional 9,475 employees during this period.

A man in a dark suit speaks at a lectern.
More than 9,000 healthcare professionals will be employed under Queensland Treasurer Cameron Dick’s latest budget.(AAP: Darren England)

But doctors are worried that there will not be enough workers to fill the positions, and the New South Wales government also plans to hire an additional 10,000 medical staff (1,048 doctors, 3,517 nurses and up to 200 midwives).

“There will not be enough trainees coming out of our systems over the next one to four years … to fulfill what the system has asked for,” said AMA New South Wales President Michael Bonning.

Budkrig

Dr. Bonning said he feared the shortage of staff could lead to a greater reliance on overseas trained doctors as well as a bidding war between states for medical staff.

“I think it represents a real risk,” he said.

“Large states like Queensland and NSW, with large economies and huge budgets, are perhaps more capable of doing that than small states like Tasmania or the Northern Territory.”

A main image of a man in a suit smiling.  He has gray hair.
Richard Murray says more emphasis needs to be placed on educating doctors in regional areas.(Delivered)

James Cook University’s dean of medicine and dentistry, Professor Richard Murray, said there was a danger that hospitals in capitals could parasitize services in the bush.

“There’s a kind of hierarchy for how easy it is to fill positions – large hospitals, large cities’ teaching hospitals will have fewer challenges in recruiting,” he said.

“The great danger is that we get a wealth of those who can afford to pay.

“It can often mean you see a drain, not just across state and territorial boundaries, but again in two major cities from areas that can at least afford to lose their medical work.”

Better training

Dr. Murray said governments should pay more attention to training more doctors and nurses in regional areas and encouraging them to stay in areas of high demand.

“We really need to see more local production of the right people with the right skills for the right locations,” he said.

“The most important thing we need to do … is to enroll and train more doctors from medical schools based in regional Australia, and then align it with the training opportunities needed after medical school.”

Dr. Murray said governments needed to “crack further” and solve the problem.

“You don’t open the tap from one day to the next and a doctor comes out … it takes years,” he said.

“We need to continue now in terms of increasing the number of domestic graduates from our medical schools in the regional Australia, James Cook University and others.”

Dr. Bonning urges state leaders and the new federal government to come together to find a solution.

“I think that just as much as we think locally about the health care system around us, we also need to think nationally about what the overall workforce plan looks like,” he said.

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Javed Iqbal

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