For almost half a century, the Newcastle After Hours Medical Service has been taking care of patients whose health concerns just won’t wait until the weekend is over.
The oldest medical deputising service in the Newcastle region, it was established in 1969 by Peter Court and John Moore, who saw a need to provide a coordinated workforce of general practitioners (GPs) who could carry out house calls for patients who needed urgent - but not emergency - medical care outside of normal practice hours.
Initially operating only on weekends, the service expanded over time to include weeknight and public holiday cover, as well as an after-hours clinic for those who have ready access to transport options and don’t need to see a doctor in their own home.
Peter said he was proud of the way the service had developed during the past 48 years, growing from an offhand request for one GP to a service that offers medical care to tens of thousands of people each year.
“I was an insurance representative, and in those days I sold mainly to doctors, GPs, and one of the doctors asked me one weekend if I knew a lot of doctors, could I find a doctor to work for him for the weekend, to be on-call for him,” he said.
“And I did, I knew a doctor who was a registrar at the Royal Newcastle Hospital who would cover him. Once that happened, that GP told other doctors, and we had more and more and more doctors ringing to say could you cover us as well?
“Doctors were obliged to be on-call for their patients 24 hours a day in those days, so in a practice, they would nominate one doctor to cover the rest, or an individual doctor would have to cover himself.
“We developed from there, from going for weekends only with one doctor driving himself in his own car, we went into weeknights and then we started to supply our own cars and our drivers for the doctors and get more doctors to work.”
More than 15 RACGP certified locum doctors currently work for Newcastle After Hours Medical Service, deputising for around 110 GPs in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie council areas.
Peter said the service was used by a wide range of people, with most patients referred to it by their regular GP.
“We see a lot of children. We have a lot of single parents in particular, people with no transport, elderly people, nursing homes as well as private hospitals and then other people who are just plain sick who either cannot get into their doctor in a required amount of time or have a problem that needs to be treated basically as soon as possible,” he said.
“Most of our doctors we cover for refer their patients to us direct, they ring their doctor, and they say if you need to call after hours please call this number.
“They can access us from 4pm in the afternoon right through till morning. It’s certainly an advantage to single parents who don’t want to take all their kids out, an advantage to people who can’t get into a doctor; there’s a lot of those.”
The bulk billed service has helped countless people over the years and has been invaluable in reducing the number of patients unnecessarily presenting to hospital emergency rooms.
Peter said that despite the rapid growth in after-hours services now operating in the Hunter, Newcastle After Hours Medical Service would continue to offer valuable medical care for patients in need for many years to come.
“If we stopped (operating) it would immediately dump 60,000 people onto the hospital system to triage and treat,” he said.
“For every call that comes in here, we probably see one in three because a lot of them just need to be triaged back to their own doctor. We also have a very busy afterhours clinic at Broadmeadow each evening and all weekends and public holidays and that takes the overload from the house calls if we can’t get to someone reasonably quickly we try to get them into the after-hours medical centre at Broadmeadow.
“Everything is bulk billed, up to and after midnight, and in the clinic as well, and it has been since we started.
“We’ve been here for 48 years, and we intend to be here a lot longer.”