Long wait times to see a doctor and fears of a town void of a core GP service have been abated today with the announcement a group of local business owners have taken Katherine's medical crisis into their own hands.
Katherine's only private practice - Gorge Health - closed its doors for good in October of 2020, leaving more than 8000 residents hanging in the balance.
Months of uncertainty ensued as residents grappled with the notion a three hour drive to Darwin for medical appointments may become the reality.
"We were concerned, as everyone was, but we were in the unique position to put our money where our mouths are and have a crack at supplying a service," new practice manager, Melanie Usher said.
Five local Katherine families, holding fears Katherine would "stagnate" without a service, have swooped in to save the day, announcing the Katherine Family Medical Practice, but it is not for the accolades.
For now, the identity of the other community heroes will remain a mystery.
"It is not altruism, it's our own selfish needs that we wanted met," Mrs Usher said.
We are all long-term locals who don't plan on leaving, ever.
"Rather than wait for it to be sorted by someone else we wanted to give it a go."
Plans to double GPs in Katherine
The new practice - which will provide mixed billing - will be situated on Katherine Terrace, in what was once a Subway, and has been vacant for years.
"We're starting small, that is the reason for the smaller premises, with plans to expand as finances allow," Mrs Usher said.
Opening by mid April, negotiations are underway to attract four GPs, twice that of Gorge Health, which operated on a razor thin margin with just two doctors.
Specialised services will depend on the doctors signed on, and there are plans for additional tele-health serves to ensure families living on outlying stations are not required to drive hours for medical assistance.
"I'd love to see a gynaecologist service in Katherine again," Mrs Usher, who has managed her own family business, Custom Cabinets, for 12 years, said.
"It would also be great to support mental health services already here... We are looking to do what ever we can."
Staff retention critical in the midst of a doctor crisis in regional towns
Refurbishment of the once-abandoned store has already begun, and the majority of the required equipment has been ordered and is on its way, but building a sustainable model to last into the future is top of mind for the new owners.
"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think it would be financially viable," Mrs Usher said.
"We've all got businesses and lots of experience in running them, but none of us need this as a distraction."
Anecdotes of long waiting times to see a doctor at the interim clinic, led by the NT Primary Health Network, and an overwhelmed hospital, spurred the decision, Mrs Usher said. It also highlighted the importance of creating a sustainable practice.
A spokesman from NT Health today confirmed "there is currently an increase in demand for health services at the Emergency Department", with residents left with few alternative options.
"The Katherine Hospital has plans in place to manage this and continue to provide health assistance and services to the Katherine community," he said.
"Attracting and retaining staff is going to be a big issue, and it is something we are going to really concentrate on," Mrs Usher said.
"For us to compete against other GPs we need to provide quality of life to get [staff] to stay."
Three week wait at the interim clinic
For Jean Young news of the new clinic is wholly welcome, especially following multiple trips to the hospital over the past couple of weeks and a three week wait for an appointment at the interim clinic.
"I felt at the interim clinic they didn't understand my problem, so I went to the Emergency Department and they looked after me," she said.
"With Katherine's ageing population we need doctors who can cope with all sorts of issues, who can see everyone.
"It is important for doctors to know the locals and know what is going on."
Opening hours will be from Monday to Friday with the addition of Saturday appointments later in the year.
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