Rural locum scheme extension welcomed
RURAL obstetricians and gynaecologists have welcomed the federal Government’s decision to extend a rural locum scheme for another year, helping to prop up the rural obstetric workforce at a cost of over $500,000.
The Specialist Obstetric Locum Scheme (SOLS) was set up in October last year, and has so far provided subsidies for 20 obstetricians to travel to remote towns where a resident doctor badly needs a break.
But its pilot funding was due to run out this September, raising the risk that the exodus of obstetricians from rural areas to the cities might accelerate if the scheme ended and left doctors with reduced support.
Announcing the one-year extension last week, federal health minister Tony Abbott said better locum services ‘‘ help to ease the time constraints obstetricians face, and encourages them either to maintain or to begin a career in rural areas’’.
He also cited a report by the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, that found although nearly 30 per cent of Australia’s babies were born in rural areas, only 16 per cent of obstetricians worked in those regions. In addition, half of the remaining pool of just 130 rural specialist obstetricians nationwide are due to retire within five years.
Christine Tippett, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which administers the scheme, says that before its launch many doctors found it hard to find a locum and had to do without holidays or study leave as a result. Providing locum cover was ‘‘ essential if these specialists are to remain in rural practice’’.
RDAA president Peter Rischbieth said the SOLS scheme had ‘‘ exceeded all expectations’’ and was providing ‘‘ affordable, quality locum relief’’.
Under the scheme, rural doctors can apply for a locum to RANZCOG, which keeps a list of obstetricians willing to provide temporary cover. Negotiations on rates and conditions are between the locum and the resident doctor.
The resident doctor pays the locum on his or her return from leave, and then applies to the college for a refund — which is capped at $750 per day, up to a maximum of 14 days a year. Details of the fee negotiated between the locum and resident doctor remain confidential and are not disclosed.
Rischbieth says the scheme’s costs were offset by the money saved by avoiding having to transfer pregnant women — often by expensive air retrieval — to other centres. The RDAA said it had estimated that Continued inside, page 17