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Just how much should we need to improvise? I recently heard a GP call in to a radio show to say that she was so short of proper protective gear, her practice had resorted to wearing swimmers’ face masks and snorkels purchased from Rebel Sport. 

And how did our deputy chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, respond? He praised her ingenuity. Then he spouted the usual figures about how many masks had been ordered etc.

What I wanted to hear, as a GP myself, was an abject apology that someone on the front line should be left so under-resourced and exposed. I would have also liked a guarantee about when she could expect supplies to arrive. 

Instead, Paul might just as well have directed our GP to YouTube for these videos:

Rebel Sport run out of masks? No problem, just rip off those Y-fronts, do a quick twist and turn, then hey presto: a cap and mask. Only have a thong? Even easier.

Yes Paul, considering how poorly supported we’ve been in primary care, it’s just as well we’re good at improvising. 

One of the huge shortages has been of hand sanitiser. It’s an issue all GP practices have been grappling with. Well, here comes improvisation again. Only, this time, it’s on an industrial scale. 

Frustrated at the shortage of hand sanitiser, and the absence of any government help, practice manager Anna Davidson decided to use her industry connections to see what could be done. 

First she contacted a chemicals company, Manildra, and convinced them to divert their ethanol production for hand sanitiser use. Then, she partnered with another local company, Sydney-based Water Test Systems, to create the final product. 

She had access to large quantities of sanitiser, but no way to distribute.

This is where Riwka Hagen came in. Hagen is the admin of a Facebook group for more than 3500 practice managers. She put out the information, along with an order form.

For sale: five litres of bespoke hand sanitiser, just $125 a pop. Guess what? Within 10 days, she had more than 3600 orders.

Manufacturing has now shifted to Melbourne, at Mera Chemicals. They have the capacity to pump out 100,000 litres a week, so the offer has now gone out to other healthcare facilities such as specialist rooms, hospitals, pharmacies, and so on.

Finally, medical professionals are getting the help they need.

Why has this worked so well? 

  • Connections. Davidson knew people in the industry who could do the job. Hagen is a trusted source of information. Her Facebook group could trust that this wasn’t yet another scam.
  • Money — or rather, the absence thereof. Industry has done this at rock-bottom prices, but so far government has been nowhere to be seen.
  • Improvisation. Add to that inspiration and application. Hope you’re impressed, Paul. 

But what’s really needed to make this work across the country is funding. Doctors need government funding. Those 3600 orders would have cost less than half a million. With all the tens of billions of dollars being thrown around right now, surely that doesn’t seem too much.

What do you reckon, ScoMo?

While we await the government’s prompt financial intervention, anyone in healthcare can order here. Sorry, it’s not for personal or private use.

Nick Carr is a Melbourne based GP, author and broadcaster.

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