Dr David Ellis says although holiday times strain the current after-hours GP service, it is still coping with year-round demand
Dr David Ellis says although holiday times strain the current after-hours GP service, it is still coping with year-round demand

Doctor in the house?


JOE Turner says the community's planning for GP medical services has failed to keep pace with its status as a major holiday centre.

The former Coffs Harbour shire councillor, who said his own doctor had closed his doors from December 24 to January 3, said community planning moves for better after-hours GP services had begun more than 20 years ago when he was a councillor, but had failed to keep pace with the exploding population and the city's importance as a tourism destination.

On December 31 North Coast Area Health Service spokesman Robin Osborne publicly pleaded with people to avoid hospital emergency departments where possible over the holiday period if they needed non-urgent medical attention.

He suggested they should contact their local general practitioner or attend a local GP clinic, but it was very difficult to find Coffs Coast GPs at work over the New Year holiday period, as most doctors took the opportunity to spend the Christmas-New Year time with their families.

Yesterday Mr Osborne said the Christmas-New Year period in the Emergency Department of the Coffs Harbour Health Campus had been slightly busier overall than the same time last year, with January 2 the busiest on record, with 145 presentations at emergency on that day, compared to the holiday average of 130. New Year's Eve was also notable for the number of people, 15, needing to be treated as the result of fights.

On January 3, the doctor on call at Coffs Harbour's After-hours Medical Service, Dr Sandra Eagle, had 19 patients waiting for her when she arrived for duty at 6pm; saw 30 patients during the three-hour clinic session, and had to close the doors early, turning away another nine people.

Dr Eagle, who had put in a full day at her own surgery before starting work at the after-hours service, also had to put in a request for a pharmacy to stay open an hour later so that patients could get their scripts filled.

The Bray Street After-Hours Medical Service opened on Christmas and Boxing days. Two doctors saw 80 patients on Boxing Day. The service also opened for seven hours on New Year's Eve and for nine hours on New Year's Day and January 2, with two doctors working for some periods. The service returned to its normal opening times of 6pm to 9pm on January 3.

The after-hours service is owned, managed and staffed by Coffs Harbour GPs as a service for their own patients, but does not turn other patients away.

Dr Eagle said if enough doctors were available the clinic's hours could be extended, but there were 20 Coffs Harbour GPs not on the service's roster, although some had other duties, like obstetrics.

The chief executive officer of the Mid North Coast Division of General Practice, Dr Davis Ellis, who also works in the After Hours Medical Service, said he had seen up to 45 patients during an evening on some summer holiday week nights and queues of 30 patients were not uncommon during this peak period.

He said by next summer he hoped the service would be employing a nurse who could triage patients and do wound dressings and he had been advised that Commonwealth enhancement funds had been approved for this.

Dr Ellis said two doctors were needed for busy periods, but the service struggled to get GPs to fill its existing roster and Coffs Coast practices, unlike those 10-12 doctor practices in tourist areas like the Gold Coast, were not large enough to arrange their own after-hours services.

Dr Ellis said ideally the after-hours service would employ a locum full-time, with other GPs providing back-up, but this was not financially feasible, since outside holiday periods the after hours service was coping with the workload.

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