‘Left in the lurch’ – specialists face ruin six months after practice flood disaster

More than six months after his practice was devastated by floods, one of the remaining specialists in the northern NSW community of Lismore is still waiting on adequate support to rebuild.

Dr Ken Gudmundsen’s clinic was one of dozens of businesses inundated when the biggest flood in modern Australia engulfed the town in February, with waters rising to 14.4 metres at their peak.

His practice completely destroyed, the dermatologist was unable to see any patients for three months.

Dr Ken Gundmundsen. Source: Lismore Skin Clinic

Renting rooms at the local hospital, he is working once more but with limited space and without his usual array of equipment.

As a result, he is only able to see half as many patients as before and has had to severely cut back on the suite of services he can provide. He has also had to put his staff on reduced hours, leaving some in the position where they are considering other opportunities.

“After all I have lost, I hope I don’t lose my nursing and administrative staff as well,” Dr Gudmundsen says.

He says he and other doctors in the community have done everything they can to keep their services open and continue to care for their patients, however, they are now at breaking point financially, physically and mentally.

Despite repeated promises from the NSW and federal governments for aid, he says he has so far received only a $50,000 business grant – covering just a tiny fraction of the $600,000 in debts he has incurred as a result of the floods.

With costs mounting, he says he is now being forced to consider whether he can remain in the area at all.

“Operating for three months with no income and now half income for the foreseeable future, combined with the huge expenses to rebuild and reequip clinics is just not sustainable” he says.

Last week, the Australasian College of Dermatologists joined a coalition of health organisations calling on governments to do more to support private practices as well as pharmacies during a natural disaster.

Led by the AMA and NSW Rural Doctors Network, the group is pushing for governments to fund “Northern Rivers healthcare business grants” to pick up some of the tab of rebuilding 25 medical and dental services across the region.

The college said the injection of funds needed to be immediate.

“At a time when there is widespread acknowledgement of the desperate need to get more doctors into regional areas, the federal and state governments must provide meaningful and urgent financial support to those doctors already there,” it said.

“It is looking increasingly uncertain that Dr Gudmundsen will be able to continue his dermatology practice in a town that is already desperately underserviced.”

“The Northern Rivers communities have already suffered too much hardship to then lose one of the very few dermatologists in the area.”

AMA NSW president Dr Michael Bonning said the group was also pushing for private health providers to be designated as essential services, a classification that would open the door to immediate recovery funding.

“All health businesses, public or private, end up doing a lot of care for people at that time,” he said, adding the designation would allow for the functionality of these businesses to be prioritised in the immediate relief response.

“Should they leave Lismore, residents in the community would be significantly impacted and healthcare access would be further limited,” Dr Bonning said.

“Once you lose these core health services it is very difficult – if not impossible – to find new health providers to take their place.”

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