Sophie Wagner (centre, orange top) with fellow medicine students at the Indigenous orientation program organised by the University Centre for Rural Health. Here, they are learning to make fish traps with Bundjalung woman Monica Kapeen.

She’s already a qualified pharmacist and now Northern Rivers-born Sophie Wagner is studying to become a doctor as well. Sophie, whose mother Fiona is a well-known doctor working at St Vincent’s in Lismore, grew up in Woodburn and completed high school at Summerland Christian College and later Trinity Catholic College. Her father Stephen is a local mechanical engineer and farms sugar cane and cattle. She finished a four-year pharmacy degree at The University of Queensland before undertaking her full registration at Dubbo Base Hospital where she got a close-up look at the medical world. Later, she worked in a local pharmacy in Sydney. Now Sophie is in her third year of medicine at The University of Sydney, a milestone marked by supervised practicum placements in clinical settings that include hospitals and primary care.

frozen Medicare

The new federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has been left in no doubt about Australia’s doctors’ views on the need to lift the government’s freeze on Medicare rebates.

While welcomed to the job by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the AMA, Mr Hunt, who replaced Sussan Ley, heard the heads of both bodies say the freeze, which limits the amount reimbursed to GPs from the government at $37 per consultation, should be ended.

RACGP president Bastian Seidel described the appointment of a new minister as “a timely opportunity for the government to regroup and bolster its focus on general practice.”

Dr Seidel continued, “The provision of essential medical care for Australians has reached a crossroads and the nation’s general practice profession is at breaking point… Here is a fresh opportunity for the Federal Government to demonstrate once and for all it is committed to equity in health care and a general practice system accessible to all Australians.”

He said “the first and most effective move Minister Hunt should make is to heed the RACGP’s call to lift the Medicare freeze.”

Lilli Pilli fruit

After a wait since the opening of the new Byron Central Hospital in mid-2016, the impressive sub-acute mental unit at BCH will open on Monday 16 January. In keeping with a re-naming of mental health facilities across the Northern NSW LHD, it will have an aboreal moniker, in its case ‘Tuckeroo’.

“By mid-2017, we will see an increase of 20 additional mental health beds across the LHD, bringing the total number to 93,” Chief Executive Wayne Jones said.

Included in this number will be ‘Lilli-Pilli’, a new 16-bed dedicated older persons’ mental health treatment space within Lismore Base Hospital.

The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit at LBH will be called “Kamala”, while the Lismore Adult Mental Health Unit will be known as “Tallowwood”.

The Tweed Valley Clinic is now “Kurrajong – Tweed Mental Health Unit”.

The birth rate in the Northern NSW Local Health District has continued its downward slide of the past five years, with 2557 babies born in 2015, a reduction of 2.7 per cent since 2011, three times the statewide average.

The state at large recorded 0.9 per cent fewer births than in 2011.

The statistics were revealed in the NSW Mothers and Babies 2015 report.

They also show the region having the state’s second highest percentage of young mothers (after the Far West), with 12-19 year olds accounting for more than one-in-twenty deliveries.

The eighteenth annual snapshot of birthing practices and outcomes in NSW shows that the percentage of teenage mothers in NSW fell from 3.2 per cent in 2011 to 2.5 per cent in 2015, less than half the Northern NSW figure.

In our region, 92.5 per cent of births were in hospitals, with 44.6 per cent of those in a birth centre. The area had the state’s highest number of planned home births (1.4 per cent), and the state’s equal-highest number of babies born before arrival at hospital (1.3 per cent, the same as in Southern NSW).

Mothers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent accounted for 9.4 per cent of births, the state’s fourth highest total.

UCRH Director Prof Ross Bailie

The need to further expand medical services in non-urban Australia has attracted early New Year attention, with the peak body for University Departments of Rural Health seeking a national director to help build the health workforce in rural and remote Australia.

Meanwhile the Royal Australian College of General Practice has said building workforce capacity depends on exposing Australian medical students early to rural areas, rather than continuing to rely on placing overseas trained GPs.

 “I think it is far more attractive now for Australian graduates to work in rural areas,” said RACGP president Bastian Seidel who is urging the federal government to remove GPs from the skilled migration occupations list.

Australian graduates are now able to meet the workforce needs of rural Australia, where overseas trained doctors are currently required to work for up to ten years, he added.

The recruitment process launched by the Australian Rural Health Network (ARHEN) is aimed at finding “a strategic thinker with strong policy and advocacy skills, an effective communicator, and [someone] experienced in government.”