The ongoing battle of recruiting and maintaining doctors in regional areas was laid bare for councils in the New England Joint Organisation (NEJO) this week, following increasing concern over doctor shortages throughout the region.
Hunter New England Health (HNEH) executive director Susan Heyman and Dr Peter Finlayson painted a bleak picture of the issues in attracting General Practitioners to the area, telling the NEJO board that waiting times to see a GP in the New England are among the highest in the state, as are GP working hours.
"In Australia, there are not enough GPs for our population and they are distributed badly," Dr Finlayson told the NEJO board, which consists of mayors and general managers from Armidale, Inverell, Glen Innes, Narrabri, Moree, Tenterfield and Uralla councils.
"The New England Area has amongst the longest waiting times of any GP practice in NSW."
The presentation was given to the NEJO board during its meeting in Moree on Monday, November 30.
It comes off the back of calls to address staffing shortages at the region's hospitals, which have seen a number of potentially avoidable deaths.
In August this year, a woman died when there was no doctor on duty at Glen Innes Hospital.
The same thing happened in Tenterfield last year, when a man went into cardiac arrest and there was no doctor present at the hospital.
More recently, Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall has called for action on staffing concerns at the new $60 million Inverell Hospital, after receiving months of complaints about the level of care provided to patients.
According to HNEH, among the issues of attracting and keeping doctors is the ageing workforce - 39 per cent of GPs are aged over 55, while there are only 17 per cent (and falling) registrars.
Fifty-six per cent of GPs are international medical graduates and GPs are twice as likely to work more than 50 hours a week.
Moree GPs have the third highest working hours in NSW, while Narrabri GPs work the eighth-longest hours, according to Dr Finlayson.
And when GPs do come out to rural and regional areas, 28 per cent of them plan to leave within six years, while 49 per cent plan to leave within 11 years.
The younger generation also has different priorities - they want to work shorter hours, don't want to be on call and have less interest in anaesthetics, obstetrics and surgery, according to Dr Finlayson.
Ms Heyman told the NEJO board that the issue of medical recruitment "is an ongoing problem that has been with us for a very long time".
But she said one of the best ways to keep doctors is to train up locals.
"Training local people locally is the most useful way of recruiting people long-term," she said.
Councils also have a role to play in attracting doctors to town and making them feel welcome, according to Ms Heyman, who referenced an example in Narrabri where the town held a civic reception for a new GP and his family.
NEJO chair and Uralla mayor Michael Pearce asked what councils can do to increase the number of doctors the area.
"It's not simple," Ms Heyman answered.
"But I think there are some simple things we can do ... I think we have to start talking up our local towns and the great relationships and great community we have.
"Living and working in these rural towns - we have to start selling it and marketing it as a great opportunity."
Ms Heyman said embracing technology is another way to encourage GPs to town, and also ensure our towns are not left behind.
"We also have to start promoting telehealth as an enhancement supplement to GPs," she said.
"If they come to rural areas, they'll be supported by specialists through telehealth - so the onus is not all on the GP.
"There's a fear that we're trying to replace doctors with telehealth, but none of us want to do that.
"We need to start shifting from just saying 'we want a GP in town' to saying 'we want more than that'. We want the absolute best services and that means technology."