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Original Research

GP Proceduralists: 'the hidden heart' of rural and regional health in Australia

Submitted: 10 December 2009
Revised: 4 June 2010
Published: 17 August 2010

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Author(s) : Robinson M, Slaney GM, Jones GI, Robinson JB.

Citation: Robinson M, Slaney GM, Jones GI, Robinson JB.  GP Proceduralists: 'the hidden heart' of rural and regional health in Australia. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2010; 10: 1402. Available: http://www.rrh.org.au/articles/subviewnew.asp?ArticleID=1402 (Accessed 17 October 2017)

ABSTRACT

Introduction:  General practitioner proceduralists are a distinct and highly trained cohort of doctors who provide procedural services in hospitals and emergency rooms throughout Australia. However, their value is not well recognised in the wider system of primary health care. Consequently, an understanding of the landscape of GP procedural practice is an essential element of health service planning now and in the future. Therefore, empirical data from a 2008 study of GP procedural medicine in the Bogong region of north-east Victoria and southern New South Wales is presented. The implications of shifting trends in the demand for and supply of the GP procedural workforce on future health services is examined. A comprehensive literature review established past and future trends in procedural medicine and provided a context for three research questions: (1) What procedures are being performed by GP proceduralists in the Bogong region? (2) What procedures are no longer performed and why? (3) What is the likely future of GP procedural practice in the next 5 to 10 years?
Method:  A qualitative case study methodology was chosen to explore the factors that influence the nature of GP procedural medicine. A population of 70 GPs were initially identified as practising obstetric, surgical or anaesthetic procedures. Of these, 38 participated in structured interviews, 21 were electronically surveyed and 11 were excluded from the study. Combined interview and survey responses gave a response rate of 81%. Five health service executives and a senior Department of Human Services manager were interviewed to gather their perspectives about the research questions. Content and thematic analysis revealed key issues of importance. Data-sets were examined to analyse themes associated with trends in GP procedural medicine over time.
Results:  General practitioner proceduralists are attracted by diversity, challenge and passion for procedural work. However, there has been a gradual but sustained decline in the volume and complexity of procedural work due, in part, to shifts in community demography, changing medical practices, the rise of specialisation, the centralisation of services, infrastructure and other costs, and fear of litigation. Moreover, an ageing workforce and a shift in the demographic profile of GPs and the pressures of procedural life have contributed to a decline in GP proceduralist numbers. Nevertheless, there remains a substantial demand for GP procedural medicine in rural communities.
Conclusions:  Rural towns are dependent upon GP proceduralists to ensure the continuing health and sustainability of local communities. However, the existence of a viable and robust workforce of GP proceduralists is at a ‘breaking point’. Until GP proceduralists are recognised and counted as a distinct cohort of valued and highly trained medical practitioners they will remain the ‘hidden heart’ of primary care in rural and regional Australia. An holistic approach must be adopted to attract, train, maintain and recognise the GP proceduralists’ unique place in rural health. With the Australian health system under government review, there are opportunities to revitalise GP procedural practice as a long term, viable and challenging career choice and ensure on-going support for rural in-patient and emergency department services.

Key words:  Australia, general practitioner, GP proceduralist, recruitment, retention, succession planning, training rural health workforce.

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