Dr Sarah McLay from Clermont Country Practice
Dr Sarah McLay from Clermont Country Practice

WATCH: A heartfelt plea for patients to support rural GPs


Monday is always the busiest day of the week at Dr Sarah McLay's country practice in Clermont.

It's when people make their way into Central Queensland towns, ailments in tow, at the start of the working week.

But last Monday, for the first time in months, she had a day off.

Not by choice, but due to the fact the Clermont Country Practice bookings had dried up.

While on her rare 'day off', Dr McLay decided to speak candidly to the world about the COVID-19 impact, posting a facebook video explaining the lay of the land in the rural health system.

"If you had have told me eight weeks ago that I would be - on a Monday - at home on my deck, having time out, I would have said "no way, you're crazy," she said in the video's opening sentence.

It quickly became apparent that her aim for the video was not to brag about putting her feet up, but rather making a heartfelt plea from an otherwise unheard section of health professionals - rural general practitioners.

It's widely known that at the best of times, people living in rural areas take a bit more convincing to get their regular check-ups, but with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are putting off their GP appointments.

"We watched our bookings go from fully booked with a four-week waiting list, to half booked, to 30 percent booked, and that rate kept continuing," a visibly downtrodden Dr McLay told whoever may be watching.

Clermont Country Practice's set up earlier this month flu clinic
Clermont Country Practice's set up earlier this month flu clinic

As coronavirus jumped from shore to shore, Dr McLay was in the middle of boosting her small group of doctors to the small mining town and surrounding areas.

In a matter of weeks, she had employed two more fully qualified GPs and a doctor in training, supplying the town with the greatest number of practitioners in ten years.

But almost immediately the bookings dried up and now Dr McLay is in a struggle to keep her staff whom she worked so hard to secure.

"Right now, across Australia, people aren't calling their doctors- they're holding onto their problems," she said.

Dr McLay said many would rightly assume all doctors are busy as the jaws of COVID-19 close on the world.

"Guess what. We're not too busy," she said.

"We are far more available than we've ever been and we're struggling to keep our businesses open."

"I'm a rural GP and I've gone from being flat-out busy to this weird, sort of intermediate pace and it's sad - I don't know what to do."

She described the video as a call to arms for patients to support hers and other rural practices by simply booking an appointment.

Dr McLay and others across the state have adapted like any other business has had to, making their services available in the confines of social distancing regulations - like the introduction of phone appointments.

The practice has also invested thousands in PPE.

"This is a weird world, a strange world and we're all transitioning as best we can but for us to continue, we need you guys," she said.

Dr Sarah McLay
Dr Sarah McLay

Dr McLay told The Morning Bulletin that after a tense night with her video online, the feedback in the morning was positive.

"I had a number of other rural GP practice owners contact me, very thankful that I spoke up," she said.

There's much speculation suggesting COVID-19 restrictions may be relaxed in as soon as a month, but Dr McLay is sceptical of that timeframe and said it could be double that, if not more, thus making it more important for patients to stop delaying their check-ups.

Sadly, as a result of the downturn, the practice had to make its only nurse redundant.

Adding insult to injury, other employees are not eligible for the government's Jobkeeper payments.

Since Monday afternoon, Dr McLay's video had reached more than 5000 people - 2000 more than the entire population of Clermont.

Subsequently, some bookings began to fill her and her employee's schedules.

Her plea may be indicative of other health service workers struggling during the pandemic including other GPs and specialists as non-essential surgeries and movement restrictions continue.