The closure of the only medical centre in a small north-west New South Wales town has left residents with deep concerns about access to healthcare and the potential impacts to the local economy.
- A GP who combines telehealth with periodic face-to-face consultations will take on patients from Barraba
- Residents are worried that older community members will struggle to adapt to the technology required
- Clinics in a nearby town say they will be unable to take patients from Barraba
Last Wednesday a community newsletter delivered the news that Barraba Medical Centre would close indefinitely because it was unable to secure the permanent services of a general practitioner.
David Kelly has lived in the town of 1,500 for decades and says the closure has left people “pretty devastated”.
“[There’s] a great sense of concern over the future and I think rightly so,” he said.
Mr Kelly, an accountant, has always kept on eye on the town’s financial fortunes and fears the ripple effect the closure could have.
“If they [patients] have to travel to other towns, they shop in those towns, so that has the blowback in relation to our small retailers,” he said.
“From a community perspective, this could be devastating.”
‘It’s a pattern’
Video link services have been identified as a way to address the widespread shortage of GPs in regional areas.
Boyd Health director and principal GP Owen Boyd offers in-person and telehealth consultations in the Hunter and New England regions.
His business model relies on telehealth to keep up with his patients in the north-west from his base in Newcastle.
Dr Boyd first tested the approach in the small town of Spring Ridge, where he has been providing in-person consultations for two days per month since July.
He said the combination of face-to-face consultations with regular telehealth appointments was the future of regional health services.
“It’s a pattern I’m seeing across the bush at the moment,” Dr Boyd said.
“I’m seeing doctors vacating rural towns [and] that needs to be considered at a community level, it needs to be considered by politicians.”
But he said there some barriers to using telehealth in towns with ageing populations.
“That is a challenge,” Dr Boyd said.
“There’s always some limitations to telehealth when you’re working in rural communities.
“With any innovation, sometimes there’s a group of patients that don’t have the capacity, but they might evolve into it.”
Dr Boyd plans to provide face-to-face appointments one day a month from Barraba’s Multipurpose Service and will offer telehealth appointments via phone or video to cover the days he is not in town.
But many in Barraba are worried that the transition to virtual services will be difficult.
Faye Corin said she was able to navigate the online portal to book an appointment with Dr Boyd, but feared others might have trouble.
“For an oldie, I’m still able to book in online on my phone — however, a lot of people would not know how to do that” she said.
“That sort of thing will have a big impact on this town.”
The ABC has contacted GP clinics in Manilla, half an hour south of Barraba, which say they will not be taking on any new clients from Barraba.
In Bingara, 45 minutes north, the town’s only medical centre has reported an increase in patients from Barraba, but is relying entirely on locum doctors and may struggle to accommodate new patients.
The Hunter New England Local Health District told the ABC Barraba Hospital emergency had seen a slight increase in presentations since the closure of the medical centre.
The ABC has attempted to contact MedCIRC, the previous operators of Barraba’s medical centre, for comment.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-29/barraba-medical-centre-loses-amid-national-gp-shortage/102770218 Barraba Medical Centre closes as national GP shortage continues