One secondary school in the south west of Western Australia has seized the initiative and its students will have access to a general practitioner on-site during school hours as part of an innovative trial starting this year.

Running for 12 months, the trial at Manjimup Senior High School, 300 kms south of Perth, will see Bridgetown Medical Group provide bulk-billed, specialised adolescent health care on one day each week.

Principal, Ben Lagana, says the school’s situation is quite unique and so approached by a GP around five years ago, its leadership team agreed it’d be a great idea.

However, given the uniqueness of a private enterprise operating within a government school context, albeit a non-money-making business that bulk-bills patients, with numerous legal hurdles and complexities needed to be overcome in order for the trial to go ahead, it’s taken years to finally see the light of day.

“We’re the only senior high school within this inland southwest corridor,” Lagana tells EducationHQ.

“We have five district high schools that feed into us for Year 11 and 12, and within a number of those communities, they do not have a GP.”

There’s also an absence of adolescent health specialists within the region.

“So we don’t have a CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health service), we don’t have a headspace – so when students are attending those kinds of appointments, they have to travel to Bumbry, which is an hour-and-a-half away.

“This means that they can access a GP without missing a day of school and it’s much more simple for them.”

In terms of appointments, students or parents/carers go through the usual booking procedures.

“We don’t have walk-ins on the day, it’s all pre-booked appointments,” Lagana says.

“We get a list of who’s made an appointment on a Tuesday afternoon, we give them a little reminder on the Wednesday morning, they come into the front office, they’re collected by the GP, they go to their appointment, the GP brings them back to the front office, we do a quick welfare check, and then they return to class if they’re up to it.”

The appointments, naturally, cover everything to do with adolescent health.

“So it will be around sexual health, it will be around mental health, it’ll be around things like acne and all those things that impact a teenager’s life,” Lagana says.

A room adjacent to the school health nurse’s has been fitted out by Bridgetown Medical Group and three GPs – one male and two female – will rotate through the service.

The service follows similar GPs in schools programs that have already rolled out in other states.

Victoria’s Doctors in Secondary Schools program provides school-based health services for 100 of the state’s schools considered most in need.

Since rolling the program out in 2016, the State Government has provided $113.5 million in funding, with $43.4 million pledged in 2021 to extend the program in all participating schools across Victoria until 2025.

That program provides equitable, accessible and professional primary health care services to young Victorians and complements existing student wellbeing programs aimed at improving health literacy and encouraging preventive health.

Tasmanian GP Dr Jane Cooper says if children with mental health and other health-related concerns can be accessed earlier through programs such as GPs in schools, and given tools and taught how to access help, we “can make quite a big change”.

The initiative has delivered more than 72,000 consultations across Victoria to students since it began operating.

In Queensland, 50 government secondary schools are now equipped with their own GP clinic to offer students easy access to primary healthcare services.

The pilot program was initially set to include 20 schools; however, due to an ‘outpouring of interest‘ it was expanded and an additional 30 schools were invited to participate.

It forms part of the Queensland Government’s ‘Student Wellbeing Package‘, which has secured more than $100 million in funding over three years.

Participating schools are provided with a fit-for-purpose clinic that operates one day per week and students can book an appointment without any out-of-pocket expenses.

At Murgon State High School, their clinic also provides a culturally responsive service, with just over half of bookings from students who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

In Tasmania, an on-site clinic at Don College in the state’s north began running in 2013, after it was founded by GP Dr Jane Cooper.

In 2019, speaking to NewsGP, Cooper said providing a GP clinic in schools can have a huge impact on the young people accessing the medical care.

“When we opened the clinic, there was nothing in Devonport for young people. So we offered sexual health, general health, mental health, and we got a bit of everything, but we got lots and lots of mental health,” Cooper said.

“What I’ve seen is, if you can access these kids earlier and give them tools, teach them how to access help … you can make quite a big change.”

Cooper said she encountered so many patients with mental health issues, she was initially concerned she was over-diagnosing them.

“The reality is we’ve just been under-diagnosing it and picking it up much later in life, usually when something big happens; there’s a major crisis or they get married and start relationships and they fall apart, or they have babies and develop postnatal depression. Yet often all the signs were there in adolescence,” she said at the time.

Due to increasing need and demand, Cooper’s clinic later relocated to Devonport’s town centre, and while it continues to service its many adolescent patients, it is now a full service family practice.

Meanwhile, in Manjimup in WA, Lagana says if the 12-month trial is successful, he’d love to see the clinic become a permanent fixture.

Data will be recorded – do the students come to school by bus? Do they live in a satellite town or community? Are they engaged with the GP? – in order to gauge whether or not the service is capturing its intended target group.

“A similar service has been running in one of the local private schools here for a couple of years and that’s well accepted within the community, everyone is supportive of it,” Lagana says.

“I think it has great merit for keeping kids at school and the earlier that they engage with health supports, they’re going to have healthier lives.”