The Coolah community is up in arms over the loss of one of its two local GPs, the planned closure of its local medical centre and the loss of its staff.
Dr Abbas Haghshenas has been a GP servicing Coolah for half a decade, having originally been contracted for only three months in a locum position.
Dr Abbas was in Coolah as a Visiting Medical Officer (VMO) and was working with Western NSW Health and Rural and Remote Medical Services Coolah (RARMS) for the time he was not working in Coolah Hospital to provide GP services to residents.
Dr Abass' departure leaves Coolah with just one GP and patients could be forced to travel to Dubbo, Gulong, Mudgee or elsewhere for some health services or in an emergency.
Dr Abbas' decision to leave arose from a contract negotiation between Western NSW Health and Dr Abbas, the terms of which Dr Abbas was unhappy with.
Dr Abbas announced his departure via a Facebook post on a Coolah community page.
"I would like to inform you that my days in Coolah have come to a rather abrupt end despite my wish," he wrote.
"What started as a three month stint in 2015, turned [in] to a five year commitment. I enjoyed serving Coolah, made many friends..."
Medical centre's future
RARMS Ceo, Mark Burdack explained why they've been forced to close the Coolah Medical Centre.
He said the decision came down to a question of financial viability given the departure of its GP in Dr Abbas.
"Without the doctor generating Medicare there isn't any income coming in to pay for the nurses and the practice manager and the reception staff and so forth and what we need to make a practice operate. So unfortunately we were then as a result forced to announce the closure of the practice," he said.
"We have put in place locums for the next few weeks. We will be paying for that, and we'll keep all the staff on who are on Jobkeeper until Jobkeeper runs out."
Mr Burdack also said they will waive the fees for patients to have their records transferred to another doctor.
The WNSWLHD will continue to work with Council and other local organisations to develop opportunities to attract more general practice services to Coolah.Western NSW Local Health District spokesperson
The Mudgee Guardian understands that RARMS was hoping to hire another GP to service the area and financially stabilise the practice thanks to the increased income from another GP. However with Dr Abbas' departure this is no longer possible as any new doctors are required to be supervised by another clinician who's been in that town.
In a message posted to a Coolah Facebook group by RARMS they confirmed that the Coolah Medical Centre will close on July 17.
'The Coolah Medical Centre contracted Dr Abbas from the Local Health District to provide GP services. Without a local GP, and with ongoing uncertainty about the direction of rural health services in Western NSW, RARMS is no longer able to continue services in Coolah,' RARMS wrote.
'This outcome is extremely disappointing to RARMS which had been working hard to recruit another GP to help make the Coolah Medical Service sustainable in the long term. We would like to thank Dr Abbas for his dedication to our community and to our wonderful nursing and administrative staff who have given their all to support our patients and the local community.'
In a statement to the Mudgee Guardian, a Western NSW Local Health District (WNSWLHD) spokesperson said they're disappointed they weren't able to work with RARMS to solve the issue.
"The WNSWLHD has made considerable efforts to work with RARMS and is disappointed it will no longer be operating its general practice in Coolah," the spokesperson said.
"The town continues to have access to other GP services and the local hospital has VMO services, providing outstanding care to patients and residents. The VMOs and other clinical staff at the Coolah Health Service supported by a range of innovative telehealth services.
"The WNSWLHD will continue to work with Council and other local organisations to develop opportunities to attract more general practice services to Coolah.
"The 2019/20 budget for the Coolah Multi-Purpose Service is more than $2 million."
The future of GP services
Member for Barwon Roy Butler spoke with the Mudgee Guardian and confirmed he had spoken with Chief Executive of WNSWLHD Scott McLachlan and is confident there can be a permanent solution put in place for GP services in Coolah.
"For the time being there will be locum practitioners in addition to an existing GP practice and the Coolah Hospital for those needing care," Mr Butler said.
He said he agrees too that while telehealth services are valuable, they cannot substitute for an in-person medical service, especially in a regional town like Coolah.
In my mind, there's no substitute for having a Doctor who's covering those VMO contracts and GP services in the town.Member for Barwon Roy Butler
"Lots of people accept that telemedicine is a part of our future, when it comes to accessing specialist services in regional communities, the unwavering position that I have... is that when we've got a VMO position, or the requirement for GP to be in the town, there's no substitute for that," he said.
"There needs to be a proper flesh and blood person in the town who's a doctor who can provide those services.
"In my mind, there's no substitute for having a Doctor who's covering those VMO contracts and GP services in the town."
Reaction in the Coolah community and on social media - where most residents learned of the GPs departure - has been passionate.
Speaking with Coolah locals, they say they feel like they've been left in the dark.
"It's worrying, because I have kids, if something happens to them I'd be extremely worried because there is a lack of doctors available," said one Coolah mother who wished not to be named.
"If there's no doctor - even if there was - I'd have to call an ambulance. Depending on what's happened, half an hour down the road compared to two minutes down the street can mean life and death."
I can't understand why they're not replacing him, it's got me beat.Coolah local
"A bloke was telling me the other day he called up the line you ring to speak to a doctor and someone picked up in Sydney. So you tell me what's going on," said another man.
"I can't understand why they're not replacing him, it's got me beat."
The sentiment has been similar on social media.
'Well we all know by now of course that Doctor Abbas has gone and can only guess the circumstances. He has been a GP for many of us and a very good one as far as I am concerned. Thank you Abbas for your efforts over the time you have been in Coolah. My family and I thank you for your attention to our medical requirements over the past five years and wish you all the best for the future. Coolah will miss your contributions, thanks very much,' wrote Peter Camilleri in one post on a local Facebook page.
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