In many smaller communities across rural Victoria, it is common for there to be only one local general practitioner (GP), who is often a man. Considering that some patients only feel comfortable consulting with a female doctor, providing gender choice to these communities is not just a matter of preference but, sometimes, of life and death.
The Rural Women’s GP (RWGP) service is a 100 per cent bulk-billed service provided by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Victoria, through funding from the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria and other donors. This service allows for female GPs to visit various rural communities every six to eight weeks, with the goal of ensuring women – and men – have gender choice when it comes to their doctor.
As a locum GP with the RWGP service for the past five years, Dr Anita Moss has heard from some of her female patients in Robinvale, in north-west Victoria, that they have put off crucial health appointments because they have previously only had access to a male doctor.
‘Due to cultural and a variety of other reasons, many women feel that they want a female to address, [for example for] reproductive or breast issues, and to have those preventive checks or any concerns in those areas reviewed by a female,’ says Dr Anita.
‘Without access to a female GP, the implication is that women in the community will miss out [on seeing a doctor] and, therefore, miss out on diagnosis of potentially life-threatening conditions.’
The other concern is that, even if women do visit a male GP, they perceive that their concerns may not be fully seen and heard, if the doctor is not an expert in women’s health issues.
Dr Anita stresses that the local rural doctors are ‘the real heroes’ and are absolutely fundamental to the health and survival of these small rural communities. However, no one GP can be an expert in all areas of medicine, and local expertise in women's health can sometimes be lacking in remote parts of Victoria.
‘There are many, many things that these country GPs are way more skilled at than I am,’ says Dr Anita. ‘For instance, I'm great dealing with issues around sexual and reproductive health but will leave the cardiac issues to the cardiologist.’
To further illustrate the importance of having an expert in women’s health available locally, Dr Anita points to the number of intrauterine device (IUD) insertions she has performed in her time with the RWGP service in Robinvale.
‘There was nobody in Robinvale who could insert IUDs on a regular basis. There’s a GP obstetrician who visits once a week, but she and the local midwife have so many antenates on their books that there’s no time for her to offer a gynae clinic.
‘So, I approached RFDS [about offering IUD insertions as part of the RWGP service] and they came to the table, because no one else was offering that service in town.’
As a result, in the last financial year, 12 per cent of Dr Anita’s appointments in Robinvale were for IUD insertions.
‘Without the RWGP service offering this option, local women would have had to see a specialist in Mildura, 100 kilometres away, where there’s a three-month waiting list. Now, it’s available in their own community at no cost, because of the Flying Doctors clinic.’
Outside of supporting local health outcomes, Dr Anita notes that the RWGP service is also critical for giving local GPs a much-deserved and much-needed break.
‘I go out to Robinvale every four to six weeks, but the local GP lives there. It’s their community. So, this service also supports those guys and gives them a break.’
In this way, locums like Dr Anita support entire communities to be healthier, not only by providing a critical alternative for patients who prefer to consult a female doctor, but also by helping overworked local GPs avoid burnout.
‘This service means the local workforce becomes a little bit more sustainable.’