Sydney's health divide: pay GPs to go west

General practitioners willing to work in western Sydney should be given the same incentives as doctors lured to country towns - as much as $47,000 extra each year - to address the city's alarming health divide, councils and the medical profession say.

A report by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, to be released today, exposes the chasm between the medical services provided for the 2 million people in Sydney's western suburbs and the rest of the city's residents, including:

One GP per 1049 residents in greater western Sydney, compared with one per 754 in Sydney's north, east and south.

270 hospital beds per 100,000 residents in western Sydney compared with 366 in Sydney's east, north and south.

Longer waiting times for cancer surgery and elective surgery, with patients waiting 124 days for prostate surgery at Blacktown Hospital compared with nine days at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, and 309 days for orthopaedic surgery at Campbelltown Hospital compared with 20 days at St George or St Vincents.

Twenty per cent fewer mental health and psychiatric beds in western Sydney compared with the rest of the city.

Compounding the divide is the fact that people living in western Sydney have poorer overall health than those living in the north, south and east, with:

Higher rates of smoking; 19.5 per cent in the south-west compared with 14 per cent in the north; and higher rates of being overweight or obese - 54.7 per cent in the west compared with 47.7 per cent in the north.

Higher rates of deaths from diabetes and cardio-vascular disease and a greater likelihood of potentially avoidable death; 165 people per 100,000 die from potentially avoidable causes in the south-west compared with 135 in the north.

Alison McLaren, the president of WSROC - which covers 10 councils in western Sydney including Bankstown, Blacktown, Blue Mountains, Fairfield, Liverpool, Parramatta, and Penrith - said the federal government should consider offering GPs the same incentives afforded doctors in rural areas, worth up to $47,000 a year.

''We need to look at incentives to bring general practitioners and other specialists to western Sydney,'' Ms McLaren said. The report examined the health needs and resources in greater western Sydney, an area bounded by the Hawkesbury in the north-west, the Blue Mountains in the west, Wollondilly, Campbelltown and Camden in the south-west, Bankstown, Auburn and Parramatta in the east and the Hills in the north-east. The NSW Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner, has read the report but blames many of the problems raised on poor management under the previous Labor government. She said the O'Farrell Government had already started improving the outlook, with a $139 million upgrade to Campbelltown Hospital and $300 million allocated to Blacktown and Mt Druitt hospitals.

Liverpool Hospital will receive a dedicated preventive health office with a budget of $120 million over four years.

But the opposition spokesman for health, Andrew McDonald, said the population of western Sydney was growing at a much faster rate than rural NSW and financial incentives could attract more GPs to the area. ''Western Sydney, while still a part of the city, suffers comparable workforce shortages as rural areas.''

The population of western Sydney is forecast to grow by one million over the next 25 years, taking it to 2.8 million.

Dr McDonald, the member for Macquarie Fields, still works one day a week as a paediatrician at the Tharawal Aboriginal Medical Service in Airds and continues to teach at the University of Western Sydney medical school.

''It would have been much easier for me to give that up, but I just can't because it's so difficult to find a clinician willing to do the work,'' he said.

A spokesman for federal Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek, said inner-urban doctors willing to relocate to, and remain in, an outer metropolitan area were eligible for a one-off grant of up to $40,000. Eligible areas are Camden, Campbelltown, Blacktown, Blue Mountains, Fairfield, Hawkesbury, Holroyd, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith and the Hills.

But that one-off grant is nothing like $47,000 a year. WSROC's Alison McLaren said GPs needed an ongoing incentive to uproot and establish practices in the western suburbs.

The president-elect of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Liz Marles, said doctors undertaking training to become GPs currently spend a mandatory period of six months working in an outer metropolitan area or a rural area, which has helped address workforce shortages. ''There is a recognition of outer metropolitan need,'' she said. ''But outer metropolitan areas don't attract the same sort of incentive payments as the rural doctors are getting. That is something that the rural doctors have worked hard for and seen as important, so it may well be a successful strategy for attracting doctors to outer metropolitan areas as well.''

Figures from the NSW Bureau of Health Information for January-March this year show waiting times for elective surgery have improved, with urgent cases in the south-west seen on time in 91 per cent of occasions and urgent cases in western Sydney treated on time on 95 per cent of occasions. ''On time'' for urgent cases is defined as admission to hospital within 30 days. Waiting times in emergency departments at Nepean and Westmead hospitals have also decreased. Ms Skinner said workforce shortages were also being addressed with 300 extra nurses appointed to work in western Sydney over the past 16 months and 322 medical interns due to start work in the area next year. ''I will send my responses to WSROC so they have my feedback, so that they are aware of the improvements which have been made there,'' she said. ''I don't think they're aware of them.''

Ms Plibersek's spokesman said: ''The Gillard government is repairing the damage from the Howard years when GP training was woefully inadequate, leading to doctor shortages. This government will recruit a record number of junior doctors into GP training places in 2013 with selection to 1100 entry places currently under way across the country. Just 600 GPs were trained each year when Tony Abbott was health minister. When they finish their training, these GPs will continue working in places such as western Sydney.''

But Ms McLaren said: ''Health has become a become a blame game. We don't care about what has happened in the past. This report is about now and the future. The squabbling has to stop and the investment has to start.''

The story Sydney's health divide: pay GPs to go west first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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