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07 Apr 2015

The AMA has voiced “grave concerns” about the Federal Government’s handling of far-reaching changes to general practitioner training under the shadow of looming doctor shortages.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has written to Health Minister Sussan Ley seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the implementation of changes to GP training announced in last year’s Budget.

A/Professor Owler warned the Minister that the medical profession was “fast losing confidence in the process, and history shows that the last time GP training was reformed by the Government it took many years to recover”.

In its 2014-15 Budget, the Federal Government abolished General Practice Education and Training (GPET) and the Prevocational General Practice Placements Program (PGPPP), axed funding to the Confederation of Postgraduate Medical Education Councils and absorbed Health Workforce Australia and GPET within the Health Department.

Under the sweeping changes, the Health Department will have responsibility for overseeing GP training.

The changes have stoked warnings that, combined with cuts to valuable programs and fears of massive hikes in student fees, they pose a serious risk to the quality and viability of general practice training, placing the profession at long-term risk.

Concerns have centred on the short time frame to implement the changes, the Department’s lack of experience in managing training programs, and the profession’s loss of supervision over training.

A/Professor Owler said expert AMA representatives who have been consulting with the Government and Health Department on the implementation of the changes have been alarmed by on-going delays and a lack of detail being provided by the Department on crucial matters such as the funding of professional oversight and governance arrangements.

“Unfortunately, we are now in a position where we simply do not know what the structure and delivery of GP training will look like beyond 2015,” the AMA President said in his letter to Ms Ley.

He said briefing papers provided by the Health Department for those attending its stakeholder meetings were “generally scant on detail and do not adequately deal with key issues, such as the future role of the GP Colleges”.

A/Professor Owler said the overwhelming view in the medical profession was that the Colleges should be given responsibility for the governance and management of GP training.

Anxiety about the changes has been heightened by predictions the nation could face a critical shortage of doctors in the next decade.

The ageing of the GP workforce and the struggle to attract students to specialise in general practice has contributed to forecasts of a shortfall of 2700 doctors by 2025 unless there is a major investment in training.

Last month Health Minister Sussan Ley re-announced the allocation of $157 million to extend the life of two medical training programs – the Specialist Training Program and the Emergency Medicine Program - through to the end of 2016.

Ms Ley said the programs were being sustained for an extra year while the Government continued to consult with the medical Colleges and other stakeholders about reforms to come into effect in 2017.

“This consultation will focus on in-depth workforce planning to better match investments in training with identified specialities of potential shortage and areas that may be over-subscribed into the future,” the Minister said. “Workforce planning is something that doctors and health professionals have been raising with me during my country-wide consultations to ensure those areas of expected shortages are addressed sooner rather than later.”

But Shadow Health Minister Catherine King condemned what she described as a “short-term fix”.

Ms King said the Government had thrown the entire field of specialist medical training into chaos by delaying confirmation of contracts just weeks before candidate interviews were due to commence.

Ms King warned that any cut to funding to specialist training would result I fewer specialists working in areas where they are needed most.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 07 Apr 2015