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Nearly 40 optometrists have been able to take leave from their practices in the past two years, under a scheme that provides government-subsidised locums for rural and remote locations.

The Nursing and Allied Health Rural Locum Scheme (NAHRLS) is seeking more optometrist locums.

Since its inception in July 2011, it has received at least 46 locum requests for optometrist positions and filled 39 optometrist placements in nearly all states and territories. This financial year, 20 optometrist places have been filled. 

Thirteen of the recipient optometrists took leave to update CPD and 33 had locum cover for general leave.

NAHRLS is a federal government-funded scheme that finds locums for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in rural areas, enabling them to take leave for up to 14 days.

The service includes recruiting and placing locums, and paying for their travel, accommodation, meals allowance and incentives during placement. There are no agency fees or hidden charges.

The recipient optometrist pays the locum’s wage.

‘We have a pool of locums willing to travel to any region around Australia if they are available during the dates requested,’ NAHRLS general manager Mark Ellis said. ‘No particular areas are difficult to fill. The most common reason for not filling positions is the availability of locums employed by NAHRLS.

‘I have met a number of optometrists who are genuinely grateful for the support they have received from the service.

‘One in particular had not had any leave for a number of years as it was not cost-effective for him to arrange a locum through any other arrangement and he could not close his practice for the length of time he wanted to be away.’

One beneficiary is Paul Carpenter, owner of Specsavers Optometrists in Clare, South Australia. It is the only optometry practice in the region.

Paul Carpenter NAHRLS - Resized _1

Paul Carpenter

‘In the past, it has been very expensive to get locums, usually from interstate,’ Mr Carpenter said.

‘By the time I have paid airfares, accommodation, locum agency fees and car hire, it almost doubles the wages bill. Due to this, historically I have not taken much leave.’

Betty Fok has worked as a locum for Mr Carpenter several times while he attended a Queensland conference and went on holiday. ‘We had positive feedback, she was professional and friendly,’ Mr Carpenter said.

Ms Fok works as a locum optometrist for several practices in Canberra and this month will take up her 20th NAHRLS placement.

‘It is good to see there is government assistance to help rural practitioners with the excessive costs of locums,’ Mr Carpenter said.

‘The service is well run and very reliable. I send a request and within a few days get a list of possible locums and résumés, then I choose an appropriate applicant.

‘Being a very busy sole practitioner and small business operator means I often work 50 to 60 hours a week. This sort of workload can take its toll if I don’t have holidays.

‘While locums are generally always available, costs are often prohibitive without this scheme.’

While working for NAHRLS, Ms Fok has travelled to Darwin (NT), Broome and Geraldton (WA), Clare and Kadina (SA), Ocean Grove and Colac (Victoria) and Orange, Lismore and Wagga Wagga (NSW).

‘I enjoy locuming for NAHRLS because I see it as an opportunity to support practitioners in rural or remote areas to have time off,’ Ms Fok said.

‘Often they are the sole optometrist to deal with emergency care in their area. They give up personal and family time and family holidays, and deal with business operations after hours.

‘Taking time off to recover from injury or catch up on continuing education is also important for these practitioners.’

Ms Fok said benefits included travel while being provided with airfare, hire car and accommodation, and shorter blocks of work which meant not being away from home too long.

She has received thank-you cards and repeated requests for work—she has worked in Darwin five times, Clare four times, Kadina three times and other places twice.

‘For all but two trips, I have been the only optometrist in town,’ she said. ‘I don’t recall having a “just prescribing specs” day while locuming.’

The variety has ranged from routine eyelash epilations, diabetic eye examinations and subconjunctival haemorrhages to checking for corneal abrasion after a bird attack, referral for urgent ophthalmological care for a branch retinal vein occlusion or retinal detachment, and a home visit to assist a distressed patient to remove a contact lens.

NAHRLS is looking for more optometrist locums. For information about locuming or hiring a locum, see www.nahrls.com.au or freecall 1300 NAHRLS (624 757).

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