Health authorities are defending the relationship between Murray Bridge's hospital and Bridge Clinic in the face of criticism by a political candidate.
SA Best's candidate for Hammond, Kelly Gladigau, has launched a petition demanding SA Health employ a GP to provide emergency and after-hours medical services at the hospital.
At present, those services are contracted out to Bridge Clinic.
Emergency patients can report to either the hospital or the clinic, because life-saving equipment is available at both locations and doctors will go whenever they are needed.
However, patients who need admission to hospital must go through Bridge Clinic rather than two other medical practices, and services are not always bulk billed.
Many of the 178 people who had signed the petition by Wednesday criticised the time patients spent waiting to see a doctor at the hospital, saying it would be quicker to drive to Adelaide; and the fees they were charged, saying an inability to pay could cost someone’s life.
One signatory said parents had chosen to delay seeking medical attention for their children because they didn't want a huge bill.
Another described the fee patients were charged as double dipping, considering Country Health SA already paid Bridge Clinic to provide its service.
Mrs Gladigau said the arrangement was dangerous and a waste of public resources.
"For the private practice ... to be receiving money from Country Health SA to provide the doctor service, and to be diverting the patients to a private practice and charging the patients ... is ludicrous," she said.
She said other regional centres, such as Mount Gambier, had a public, bulk-billing doctor on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Most country hospitals rely on private GPs
But acting SA Health chief operating officer Wayne Champion said private clinics provided after-hours services in Whyalla, Port Lincoln, Port Pirie, Berri and smaller communities including Mannum and Meningie.
"Local GPs are contracted to provide after-hours emergency medical services in the majority of country communities," he said.
"The after-hours service model depends on the availability and willingness of local doctors to participate in the medical roster."
Only Bridge Clinic doctors have chosen to opt into the after-hours roster.
Mr Champion did not indicate whether Country Health SA was likely to change its service model in future.
But he said the organisation was grateful to the doctors at Bridge Clinic for the high quality services they had provided over many years.
Manager Jill Coombe denied Bridge Clinic was double dipping by charging patients for emergency or after-hours consultations, as the Country Health SA contract was intended to guarantee doctors were rostered on, not to subsidise the service they provided.
Besides, she said, patients who were admitted to hospital were not charged a fee.
She said four GPs were on call in Murray Bridge day and night, every day of the year, for emergency triage, surgical support, childbirth and airway management; and that it would be challenging for a single public GP to take on the same responsibility.
She said the experience of towns such as Berri and Victor Harbor had shown it would be more expensive for the Department of Health to provide a 24-hour GP service, and that the level of service would suffer if patients were more often treated by an unfamiliar public doctor.
Political rivals weigh in
Liberal Member for Hammond Adrian Pederick said he was a strong advocate for the continuation of 24-hour health services, and had lobbied for better access to doctors in Murray Bridge.
If they won government next March, he said, the Liberals would establish six regional health boards to give locals more power to make decisions about health services.
Liberal health spokesman Stephen Wade said private GPs provided after-hours services at “all but a handful” of country hospitals, and anyone calling for a switch to salaried doctors needed to explain how they would pay for it.
The Standard also sought comment from Labor candidate Mat O’Brien.
- Sign the pet ition: www.gopetition.com/petitions/salaried-paid-dr-for-murray-bridge-hospital.