PAUL SERRATORE, HOST: Well if you've ever tried to book a doctor's appointment at short notice, you'll know just how impossible it can be. So, it's no surprise that when a medical incident suddenly happens, whether it's a child with high fever and vomiting or you've broken your arm or your leg, then your first course of action might be get in the car, drive to ED. But the Federal Government is hoping that a new Medicare Urgent Care Clinic opening in Alice Springs in November will change that, with those not needing lifesaving care, instead making use of the clinic and taking pressure off the hospital. Now in Alice Springs, the clinic will be run out of the Congress clinic in Northside. Earlier today the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler held a press conference to talk about that. He joins me in the studio this afternoon. Mark Butler, thanks for coming in and chatting to me.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: My pleasure.
SERRATORE: So tell me, if the clinic is supposed to be taking pressure off emergency departments, how exactly do you do that? Because I feel like the default for a lot of people when they're sick, when an incident happens is get in the car, go to ED?
BUTLER: We want to change that default. About half of all emergency department presentations to every ED across the country, but including the EDs in the major hospitals in the Territory, about half of them are what clinicians call non-urgent or semi-urgent, so they could be quite adequately cared for out in the community if you had the right setting, if you were able to find a doctor. You were right to say that right across the country, we've been hearing for a couple of years now that it's never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now and never more expensive, gap fees are going up as well. People who are really doing it tough financially often can't find the money for a gap fee even if they can find a doctor so sometimes end up at the ED for financial reasons as well. It's about changing that mindset and giving people confidence that if their kid falls off the skateboard and, you know, potentially breaks their arm, that there is another option available for them that they can walk into, that they won't be charged a fee, that will be open seven days a week and that's what our Urgent Care Clinic model, which we promised at the last election, is intended to deliver.
SERRATORE: Yes, I suppose it's great to have the model, but then how do you change patient behaviour? Because I think for a lot of people, as I said, the default in their mind would specifically go to ED, they mightn't know, there's this clinic that exists in the north side of town, at the northside shops?
BUTLER: We need to lift awareness and we'll be doing that through communications campaigns in local regions. We've already opened a number of these elsewhere in the country. We committed to opening more than 50 this year. We'll do 58 before the end of the year around Australia. Those that are already operating, I've been to some of them, their waiting rooms are full. They're often full with parents, with kids who've done something and you know, they're really grateful because they can walk in often be seen within a relatively short period of time and they know their alternative was maybe to spend 6 or 8 hours in an emergency department. It's free, it's open seven days a week, we've got to lift awareness of it. Some people, when they have an emergency at home, will ring one of our phone numbers like Healthdirect, which is a national triage service. So you ring Healthdirect, you talk to a nurse on the phone, you say, “look, my kid's done this, or my partner, my wife or my husband's had this sort of episode. What should I do?” The nurses will often say, if you can't find a doctor or a GP within two hours, go to emergency. What we're training them to do now is if they're in an area with an Urgent Care Clinic to say, look, if your kid's fallen off and really hurt their arm, there's an Urgent Care Clinic available in your area. You'll be able to be seen quickly, you'll walk in, it'll be fully bulk billed so you won't be charged. There will be imaging services available. They'll be able to take an X-ray of your kid's arm. It's not going to happen overnight, but over time we're already seeing it is changing behaviour in those areas. It means that people are able to get the care they need, when and where they need it, because people want to receive care out in the community rather than spend hours in a hospital. It is already starting to take pressure off our EDs though as well, which we know are deeply stressed at the moment.
SERRATORE: How will the Clinic actually operate? Will it be, hey, I've hurt myself, I'm going to walk in and kind of triage, say when you walk in, ED, but instead you're seeing a doctor? Well, you know, seeing someone who's working in these clinics?
BUTLER: Yeah, you'll see a triage nurse at the front desk. These clinics are not intended for non-urgent care. It's not “I've been meaning to have this looked at for a while I think I'll walk around to my Urgent Care Clinic.” No, that is not what these are set up for. They are set up for urgent events, but non-life threatening. You know, hospitals are built for once in a lifetime emergencies: a heart attack, a really serious car accident. That's why they're so incredibly equipped with equipment and staff and so on. A whole lot of things that you do need to see someone quickly for but aren't life threatening should really be dealt with in a primary care setting. You’ll go in, you'll see a nurse, the nurse will ask you what your issue is. If you really need something very, very quickly, like immediately, then that will be attended to. Otherwise, if you can wait 15 minutes, 30 depending on what else is happening in the centre, you'll wait in the waiting room, much like any other healthcare centre.
SERRATORE: Staffing, how’s that going to happen? Because we know the Territory is facing huge workforce challenges at the moment, especially in health. Are there even enough staff to run this clinic, would you say open seven days, 24 hours?
BUTLER: Well, not 24 hours. They’re extended hours and that will build up over time depending on the clinic, because these things aren't needed at midnight. They will operate at extended hours. And importantly, they must be open seven days a week. What we're finding around the country is that staff want to work at these places. Doctors and nurses are really excited about working there. The challenge is not really getting the staff to work in the Urgent Care Clinics. The challenge sometimes can be that they've moved from somewhere else. I'm not in any way sort of oblivious to the fact that there is a really serious workforce challenge right across the health system in Australia, indeed, frankly, right across the world. After COVID, every healthcare system is really stressed for workforce but the further you get away from the bigger cities, we know, the more acute that shortage is. I know how acute it is in the Territory, including here in Alice. I've been talking to Congress, to the Northern Territory Government, to a range of other organisations trying to work through some solutions for that which aren't going to be overnight. They are going to require a bit of work. I'm not as worried about our ability to staff the Urgent Care Clinic. I think doctors and nurses are excited about this model. I am more broadly worried about some of the workforce challenges that the NT is facing.
SERRATORE: Okay, you've been talking to Congress. Congress are going to be the provider of this Urgent Care Clinic. From your discussions, are you confident that Congress have the staff right now to be able to man this Urgent Care Clinic?
BUTLER: Yes, I am. It'll be open seven days a week from the time it opens on the 1st of November. It will scale up its hours over time as it works out when the peak times are for this particular city and also as it recruits staff. I've got very strong confidence that this is going to work, and they'll work very well with the hospital system here in Alice. We've been very careful to make sure that this links seamlessly with the hospital system so people get care at the right place. If they really should be in a hospital setting, then they'll be referred there very quickly. Whereas if they could quite adequately be cared for in a clinic like this, that's where they should go.
SERRATORE: All right and what conversations have you had around staffing? Because as you said, you've been talking to a range of organisations and I've got a minute to go before the news, but what are you hearing from health organisations on the ground? Do you know what more the Federal Government can be doing to attract staff to Alice Springs, to the Territory in general?
BUTLER: Yeah, Malarndirri McCarthy and Ged Kearney, both Assistant Ministers for Health in our Federal Government, held a workforce summit a few weeks ago here for the Territory. They were given pretty clear messages about the challenges that health organisations, including the NTG, are facing frankly, and they've sent that back to us. I got a good briefing a couple of weeks ago about that and I've got my department working on it. You know, frankly there are issues right through the system. Doctors are going to require a particular response. The doctors shortage and nurses require a slightly different response, but there's clearly a shortage of nurses and we need to train more Aboriginal health workers and practitioners out in remote communities as well. We've got a plan to do that, the money to do it, we've just got to roll it out.
SERRATORE: Mark Butler sorry, just one quick one on the text line. I know I said it was the clinic was going to be opening soon in November. Exact date. When are we going to see the urgent care clinic open?
BUTLER: First of November.
SERRATORE: Hey, Mark Butler, appreciate your time on this one afternoon.
BUTLER: Good to be with you.