THE doctor crisis in rural WA has hit an all-time high as shires throughout the State continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to attract a doctor.
A recent survey completed by the National Party found that some WA shires were providing incentives of up to $900,000 a year to attract and keep a doctor in their town.
A total of 60 per cent of shires were providing incentives to attract a doctor and half identified that they had a doctor shortage.
Many shires believed the State or Federal Governments should be responsible for providing the incentives to attract doctors to regional WA.
Shire of Kondinin chief executive officer Peter Webster said the total amount of all assets to retain a doctor in Kondinin was between $800,000 and $900,000 a year.
Mr Webster said the incentives the Shire of Kondinin offered to doctors included a four bedroom house, including the cost of electricity and phone bills, a five-year-old medical centre, including a computer system and a new car.
He said the State Government wasn't taking responsibility and was just handballing it to the Federal Government.
"It would be nice if we could get some assistance," Mr Webster said. "This situation is bad and has become difficult."
The Shire of Kondinin has been using locum doctors from Merredin and Perth for the last year at a cost of about $8000 a week for a four day service and two nights-a-week coverage.
The same doctor also services Kulin and Hyden but Mr Webster said there had been an increasing reliance on the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).
"The RFDS is a great back-up but many of the cases could have been addressed locally," he said.
Mr Webster said he would like to see doctors placed in rural hospitals because then it would become a State Government issue.
"Politicians believe the situation will be resolved in the next two years but I still think we're going to have the same problem of attracting doctors to rural areas," he said.
"It is a major problem because older people will start moving away, which will then put strain on the hospital to stay open."
Shire of Dalwallinu president Robert Nixon said as well as incentives of a house and a car, the shire was contributing between $130,000 and $150,000 a year to keep a doctor working in the town.
He said this was necessary to subsidise the operation of the shire-owned Medical Centre in Dalwallinu that was located on a national highway.
Mr Nixon said Dalwallinu had been without a doctor earlier this year but was fortunate to now have an excellent full-time doctor.
"I'm aware of the ongoing doctor shortage and I have sympathy towards those towns that don't have a doctor," Mr Nixon said.
"I feel sorry for any community that hasn't got a doctor because it is very difficult to recruit a doctor in the current circumstances."
Mr Nixon said the $900,000 incentive which some shires were paying was "frightening".
But Federal Member for O'Connor Tony Crook said this was a matter for the Federal Government and it was wrong for shires to be contributing as much as $900,000 to keep a doctor in their town.
Mr Crook said the shires provided surgeries, cars, houses and supplemented the doctors' income when clearly they shouldn't have to.
He said successive governments had let the matter slip to crisis point and it had to be addressed in an expedient manner.
"To spend that much money is just amazing and it's a bit scary," he said.
"I don't condone the councils for doing that at all but I pay them full praise because all they want is the best for their communities.
"But I would like to think these shires won't have to fork out this sort of money for the next couple of years."
Parliamentary Secretary and Member for the Agricultural Region Mia Davies said the Parliamentary National Party was using the information to build a case for the Federal and State Governments to take measures to address the problem.
"The doctor shortage in regional WA is now at crisis level and Local Governments are carrying a huge burden to address the problem, including providing housing, surgeries, cars and salary incentives, which is simply not sustainable," Ms Davies said.
"Some towns are struggling to get one doctor, while other towns have 10 or so doctors, but need additional doctors to keep up with the growing population and workload in certain locations."
Ms Davies said it may take some thinking "outside the square" to address this crisis in the short to medium term.
The Parliamentary National Party has written to the State and Federal Minister's for Health seeking advice on a range of solutions including nurse practitioners, salaried doctors in hospitals and increasing the number of examination sittings for international doctors.
Mr Crook said the Federal Government should explore different initiatives to get doctors working in regional areas.
Mr Crook said this situation had been a long time coming but there was no quick fix.
"I just don't think there are enough doctors in the system and to get doctors in place is a five or six year program," he said.
"But I think I've struck a pretty good relationship with Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon.
"She strikes me as prepared to be innovative with it and she acknowledges that there's no quick fix either."
"It's grossly unfair that for some country areas to get a doctor, Local Governments have to pay through the roof," he said.
"I believe the doctor shortage has reached crisis point and urgent remedial action is required.
"There needs to be a better system, not only to train and retain sufficient general practitioners, but to attract them to regional areas.
"When the Shire inquired as to the reasons for the doctor shortage, both the State and Federal Government blamed each other."