MOST Hunter residents will know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be to get an early appointment with a general practitioner.

Many practices have closed their books to new clients and even existing clients of long standing can wait days or weeks to see their preferred doctor.

It’s a problem that seems certain to get worse, for reasons that have been well-recognised for a number of years.

In a nutshell, the average age of the Hunter’s general practice workforce is rising. As older GPs retire they are not being replaced by a sufficient number of new doctors able to pick up the full workload. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that many new GPs only work part-time and may take extended periods of leave for family reasons.

The population is growing too, making it even harder to match community needs with GP numbers.

And although Australians like to boast about the safety net provided by Medicare rebates, the reality is that the mismatch between supply and demand for doctors means the gap between the rebates and actual charges at the surgery is growing.

This means that, in effect, many Hunter people are slipping back to the predicament so common before Medicare where a visit to a doctor means economic sacrifice in some other important part of the household budget.

Hunter doctors have an established record of designing and lobbying for improved service delivery models.

Co-operative after-hours clinics, for example, have shown their worth to both doctors and patients, spreading the load of anti-social shifts and ensuring better availability of care outside regular business hours.

Even so, the Hunter Valley Research Foundation has reported that rising medical costs mean one in five residents either put off seeing a doctor, delay some other necessary household purchase, travel a long distance to find one of the handful of remaining bulk-billing practices or borrow money to pay for care.

Given the Hunter’s socio-economic status and high rate of welfare dependency, this shouldn’t be surprising.

It is, however, very troubling and demands more creative thinking by doctors and governments to find solutions, before significant portions of the population become unable to access good-quality primary medical care.

History on show

NEWCASTLE’S amazing history is too often unsung. Most Hunter children learn more at school about the causes of European wars or the doings of the ancient Egyptians than they do about their own city’s remarkable place in the making of Australia.

It is gratifying that popular television history presenter Tony Robinson – having researched the city’s past – is set to bring some of his discoveries to light for the benefit of a wide audience.

As anybody who has spent even a short time investigating Novocastrian history will agree, the film-maker has an extensive menu of fascinating stories to choose from.