The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is urging government to provide more support for GPs protecting patients during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
In its submission to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19’s inquiry into the Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the RACGP warns that more could be done to assist hardworking GPs across Australia.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said that the response from governments to the COVID-19 pandemic had yielded positive results but that more could be done.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet but Australia has escaped the worst of the COVID-19 virus in comparison to many other countries around the world.
“This is in part because our response to this pandemic has been well-coordinated and government has listened to calls from the RACGP on matters such as increasing personal protective equipment stocks and expanding telehealth and telephone services.”
“However, much more could have been done in the early stages of the pandemic and as it progressed nation-wide to support GPs on the frontline combating the COVID-19 virus.
“Because state and territory governments manage the health crisis response and the Federal Government has primary responsibility for general practice, GPs have not been properly embedded into the wider pandemic response. This is not new, we have been drawing attention to this problem for years.
“However, the pandemic exposed the full scope of these shortcomings and we believe the role of GPs as frontline health providers must be formally recognised in pandemic preparation, mitigation, response and recovery. GPs know their communities and will be there for patients during and after this pandemic so we should be front and centre.”
The RACGP President said that inconsistent and confusing messaging and advice has been a source of significant concern.
“This pandemic has exposed challenges concerning different levels of government and agencies having different roles and responsibilities.
“GPs have expressed frustrations about different information on testing criteria and use of personal protective equipment across the country as well as inconsistent advice from politicians and a lack of cohesion between different jurisdictions.
“Having an RACGP representative on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee would make a significant difference. GPs should also be provided with information such as government modelling and local epidemiological data.”
Dr Nespolon said that government needed to be more proactive in encouraging patients to take care of their wellbeing.
“One problem we are facing is that patients are delaying or avoiding GP consultations due to fears concerning COVID-19. People with serious existing health conditions are not having their conditions reviewed and patients are not seeing their GP when new symptoms emerge.
“Government needs to play a more active role in communicating to the public the importance of not delaying a consultation with their GP, whether for existing health conditions or new health concerns. It is safe to attend general practice because we have safety processes in place and patients need to realise that.”
The RACGP President said that one of the most pressing problems during the pandemic has been a lack of resources needed to keep staff and patients safe.
“A shortage of personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks has been a major concern for many GPs.
“This is completely unacceptable and government needs to urgently supply personal protective equipment to general practices experiencing shortages. In future, we need superior distribution channels responsive to local requirements.
“Similarly, we urged Australians to get their influenza vaccinations earlier than usual this year as we didn’t want hospitalisations for the flu coinciding with people requiring hospital care for COVID-19.
“However, some GPs have been dismayed to find that they just haven’t received enough stock and this has frustrated patients turning up to their local practice to get their jab. An adequate supply of flu vaccinations must be prioritised for general practice right away.”
The RACGP President said the COVID-19 pandemic had exposed the dangers of misleading and false information circulating on social media platforms from celebrities.
“Throughout this pandemic we have seen celebrities with substantial social media reach promote anti-scientific ‘cures’, concerning COVID-19 and spread anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories.
“We must combat this, the Federal Government should respond swiftly and launch a campaign to educate Australians about the importance of vaccinations and to heed the advice of medical experts when it comes to vaccinations, COVID-19 and any other health issue.”
Dr Nespolon said that it was vital government took this opportunity to make overdue improvements to primary care.
“In early March temporary Medicare Benefits Schedule items were introduced to support telephone and video consultations in general practice. More than 99% of GP clinics have taken up these options which have enabled GPs to continue providing essential care while minimising the risk of COVID-19 infection.
“Our intention is to work constructively with the Federal Government so that access to Medicare-funded telephone and video consultation services is available beyond 30 September this year for all Australians. When it comes to service delivery it sometimes appears as if general practice is stuck in the 1970’s and this must change.
“The primary healthcare response to this pandemic is far from over and GPs will continue working as hard as we can to keep patients safe. We hope the lessons from the COVID-19 response highlights the high quality of care general practice is well equipped to provide during emergencies and in the aftermath.”
A summary of the RACGP’s recommendations is as follows.
Urgent and short-term recommendations:
Coordinate the urgent supply of PPE to GPs facing shortages;
Invest in raising public awareness of the importance of not delaying medical care; and
Prioritise adequate supply of influenza vaccinations to GPs; and
A government campaign to educate Australians about the importance of vaccinations.
Medium to long-term recommendations:
Formal and permanent GP representation on the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee; and
Establish a national coordinated body to prevent inconsistent public messaging.