South West Healthcare's general medicine clinic has been without a permanent full-time GP for more than six months as the service struggles to recruit amid a nationwide shortage.
The South West Medical Centre has been relying almost exclusively on "locum" - or temporary fill-in - doctors and has significantly reduced its hours.
South West Healthcare has been recruiting hard to find permanent doctors, but chief executive officer Craig Fraser told The Standard he didn't see the situation improving any time soon.
"I think we're facing the same issues as GP practices across Australia, particularly in rural areas," Mr Fraser said.
"There's not a lot of GPs in the market at the moment who either want to move or work additional hours to sustain that workforce."
The medical centre was set up in 2012 to provide Warrnambool's only late night and Sunday GP clinic.
One of its key functions was to take pressure off Warrnambool Base Hospital's emergency department by catering to non-acute patients who would otherwise end up in ED.
In 2021 the centre had five permanent doctors, but by mid-2022 all five had left, with some moving to nearby GP practices and others going interstate. The lack of doctors also forced SWH to drop the registrar GP it was training at the centre.
"I think it's well known that in recent months we've been down on our GP numbers and we are bringing locum GPs in," Mr Fraser said. "That's been pretty good and successful at getting people in to provide that service."
The centre's appointments page shows two locum GPs working four days a week until early May, with a third doctor working irregular days, but there are no appointments listed outside normal Monday to Friday work hours, which was a chief reason for establishing the clinic.
While the locum service helps SWMC offer a handful of appointments to those who need them most, it isn't an economical way for SWH to staff the centre, makes opening hours difficult to predict, and doesn't allow patients to build a relationship with a particular doctor. Mr Fraser said the service was trying to build a more sustainable model.
"We are working with the GP manager about how we can recruit and maintain a core group of GPs, or at least one or two in the interim where we can build that GP practice back up again to a substantive number of GPs," he said.
"I'd like to say I could put a time frame on when it will be back operating at normal hours, but I just can't see it in the short term."
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