BURNT out rural doctors are being forced to leave the bush due to frustrations with a "government that is not engaging" with them, a Senate inquiry into rural health heard on Friday.
Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) president Paul Mara spoke to the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, which has been investigating the factors affecting the supply of health services and medical professionals in rural areas.
Dr Mara said a shortfall of some 1000 doctors in rural communities was forcing long-time bush doctors to leave their communities because they were forced to work 24 hours a day seven days a week.
He told the inquiry that Friday was the first day he personally had had off, after working the previous 27 days straight to service patients in his home town of Gundagai.
Dr Mara said there were several factors affecting the numbers of GPs in rural areas, including an incentive classification system that listed towns like Gundagai along with major regional centres such as Cairns.
But he said the biggest problem was that the Federal Government was not engaging with doctors in the bush.
"We have attempted to engage with the government on this issue for years - that is my chief complaint.
"When the system was being designed, we told them the system was not designed properly, and people have simply not listened to us.
"I want to engage constructively with the government, but we can't do that if people simply don't listen to us."
Dr Mara said the current classification could be improved with minor changes which would see incentives flow to where they were most needed, but he advocating starting again from scratch.
He also suggested an expansion of the existing incentive system.
Currently, doctors who work in rural and regional areas are paid incentives while they work in those towns.
Dr Mara said an additional incentive could be created where doctors are paid in the incentive even after they leave the rural communities.
He suggested that doctors should continue getting the benefits for the same amount of time they were in a rural community - five years after they leave, if they spent five years in a small town.
But Dr Mara said that no incentive was good enough to keep doctors in rural areas if they did not have the skills and training they needed to service their communities.
RDAA chief executive Jenny Johnson said she feared for the future of rural general practitioners who were being burnt out with a lack of doctors to fill in after hours and during holiday breaks.
"My greatest fear is that these doctors who are dedicated to their communities are leaving because they just can't keep going.
"We need to keep these doctors where they are, because these are the doctors who are going to be mentoring the next generation of medical students and encouraging them to come back to rural communities."
The inquiry will report its findings on June 27.