Health services in ‘crisis’ and relying too heavily on fly-in locums in Broken Hill, Far West NSW

Health services in ‘crisis’ and relying too heavily on fly-in locums in Broken Hill, Far West NSW
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

The chair of a parliamentary committee examining health services in Far West New South Wales has warned the health system is in crisis and relies too heavily on fly-in locums.

The committee visited health outlets including the Broken Hill Base Hospital, Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Cooperation in Wilcannia, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Wagga Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr, chair of the Select Committee for the Inquiry into Regional, Rural, and Remote Health, said it noticed the ongoing overuse of locums, during their visit to check on progress in implementing recommendations.

“The situation throughout rural NSW is getting worse. I’d say it is in crisis,” he said.

“[There’s] still a lot of reliance on agency staff and locum staff. We’ve just got to do better at making health professionals look at what the great opportunities are in remote and rural areas.

“NSW Health must work a lot harder and a lot smarter.”

a man speaks into a microphone outside with people surrounding him
Independent Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr and the committee visited Far West NSW this week.(ABC Riverina: Victor Petrovic)

The committee was formed following a scathing report into NSW Health in 2022.

The report handed down 44 recommendations to the then-Coalition government to address historic failures by the commonwealth and state governments that had led to workplace shortages and high costs of travel.

NSW Premier Chris Minns later committed to all 44 recommendations when he was elected.

Dr McGirr said the committee would do all it could to see the system change positively by talking to those who worked in communities but warned it would take time.

“In NSW, the Commonwealth is effectively missing in action. It’s slow to change,” he said.

“I think NSW Health has been making an effort to change.”

Locums a band-aid solution

Professor Emeritus John Cole, from the University of Southern Queensland, said NSW Health was not the only health branch that had fallen into the trap of relying on locums.

“We have the situation where we spend millions of dollars flying people to the metropolitan hospitals, but it acts as an inhibitor for regional people accessing health services,” he said.

While locums provide a short-term solution, they often do not spend much time in the community and miss out on the critical patient-health professional relationship.

Professor Cole said this could lead to people in remote communities opting not to get medical help in the early stages of illness.

“We can see differences in survivorship, partly because people simply decide to go a different way and ignore it,” he said.

Health through a remote lens

Maari Ma Health chief executive Richard Weston said an complete overhaul of how health looked in remote communities could be the key.

Maari Ma Health chief executive Richard Weston sits at his desk not smiling
Maari Ma Richard Weston says there needs to be more focus on understanding what remote communities need.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

“The solutions out of Sydney or Canberra are not designed to suit the needs of us in remote areas and are probably more suited to the bigger regional centres,” Mr Weston said.

He said remote health districts could better service those living outside of regional centres.

“Outside of Broken Hill, we have a high Aboriginal population across sparsely populated areas,” Mr Weston said.

“Things like transport, education food security and employment are challenges.” 

Mr Weston said there also needed to be a wrap-around approach to attracting people to the state’s Far West region.

“Things that help attract people to places like Broken Hill and the surrounding areas are good housing, access to a good social life, schooling for their kids, meaningful work and good incentives for people to relocate,” he said.

Man looks over a young crop
Dr McGirr says the committee wants regional and remote communities to have access to healthcare.(ABC: Chris Lewis)

Professor Cole said the way that Australians viewed the regions and remote communities needed to change.

“We as Australians have to engage in creating a different narrative about Australia,” he said.

“Too often we depict regional Australia as second best, and it’s not true.”

The committee is expected to deliver its first report in the middle of the year.


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