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A community’s response to ensure healthcare survives

Pictured: Members of Mallacoota Medical Clinic, CHIRF, Mallacoota Inlet Aged Care, local builders and Minister for Veterans Affairs and Member for Gippsland The Honourable Darren Chester MP.

Through the initiative of the community, in mid-January Mallacoota Medical Centre celebrated a milestone: the new building’s inspection by The Honourable Darren Chester MP. It marked the halfway point for the opening of the Centre.

The small beachside town of Mallacoota is situated close to the eastern point of the Victorian and New South Wales border, very much in the midst of wilderness. Despite the idyllic surrounds, the remote community has had difficulty filling their permanent General Practitioner (GP) positions. RWAV has assisted by providing the Mallacoota Medical Centre with locum GPs and subsidies throughout the years, however the pursuit of a permanent GP continues in order to provide the security and stability the community needs.

RWAV spoke to Robin Bryant, President and Secretary of Community Health Infrastructure & Resilience Fund (CHIRF) – a local volunteer charity borne out of the need to ensure medical services in Mallacoota survive – about the future plans for the medical Centre and what it means for the community.

It sounds like it has been a real community initiative securing the new medical centre. What has the Mallacoota community’s response been like?

The community’s response has been positive. They know that the current building is old – around 30 to 40 years old – and this has been a negative aspect when attracting new doctors. They also know we need to recruit GPs because we have an ageing community and we are two hours away from a hospital. The move to a new building will be a dramatic change.

How do you think the new Centre will enhance healthcare in Mallacoota?

The new facility will make the Centre an attractive place for GPs to work. Last year, through the Remote Vocational Training Scheme (RVTS), we were fortunate to secure a GP Registrar for the Centre. We had developed an arrangement with RVTS as a pilot scheme in which we were tasked to find a doctor that they would accept on the program. But it’s been an uphill battle finding doctors because of the remoteness of living in a rural town. The beauty and tranquility of Mallacoota, together with the new Centre; we believe these to be real incentives to offer doctors looking to relocate to a remote community. We also have a broad vision of the development of our medical services that is innovative and likely to attract people with a strong community focus.

What are the future plans for Mallacoota Medical Centre?

The first aim is to attract new GPs. Second, we’ve been working to make sure the equipment is up to date. Through community fund raising we have purchased an ultrasound machine, vaccine fridge and a generator and smaller equipment such as loupes and heart monitors. All the equipment is community owned. This has been our focus for the last two and a half years. The new Centre that will open in April is purpose built – we’re building our capacity to focus on supporting the doctors and encouraging allied health professionals to come in and work closely with them.

We want to build a medical service so people will have access to healthcare in the community. The Centre will be a doctor’s hub, where there will be a close relationship between the health professionals and the community. It’s new and exciting because it’s something we haven’t had before. We’re looking forward to the results.

As a member of the community, what has kept you on this journey to making sure these plans come to fruition? 

When I was asked by our sole GP to help, I could not refuse. The request has led to a three year 24/7 commitment which started out by defining the problem, assessing possible solutions and putting in place actions to address the issues. 

The first driver is community commitment;  there were implications for the community if we failed. The second is satisfaction in taking on what was a seemingly impossible task, learning about an industry rather new to me and finding ways of achieving the outcomes we needed. In that process I have worked with an outstanding GP, met many people and exercised my brain and wit. I have around me some outstanding people who bring their own skills and commitment to this community work. We have kept it small but it is a group that has willingly taken on a substantial workload and have revelled in it.

On this pathway we have built enduring friendships with people who mentor us such as Stan Stavros, Bertus Froneman from HiS Group, the designers and contractors for the new building and Southern Cross Developers, John Tyrrell who has brought out the best in our local tradesmen. We have around us a family and we are very proud of that association.

The reward of this is that we have built a new model of medical care delivery for a remote community against the odds.

The new Mallacoota Medical Centre is expected to open in April this year.

CHIRF has been instrumental in securing funding from the federal government toward the building of the Centre, and sourcing GPs through its Doctor Search program. It has also received funding from the Gippsland Primary Health Network GPHN) for the Teen Clinic Program and a Chronic Disease Program. The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) has provided substantial support to CHIRF for administration, mental health services and occupational health support.

RWAV has supported Mallacoota Medical Centre for the past nine years by providing a no fee recruitment service for GP locum cover, to assist during annual leave and busy holiday periods, as well as providing ongoing locum grants to cover travel and subsidise locum costs. RWAV has also provided a relocation grant of $15,000 for a new GP registrar.

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