The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has welcomed the Federal Government announcement of permanent telehealth, which the College has been advocating for.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the news at a press conference on Monday morning, along with a slew of other investments totalling $308.6 million, including:
· $106 million over 4 years for a permanent telehealth for Australian patients, including $31.8 million for the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP) to provide additional funding to general practices through the inclusion of ongoing telehealth items in the calculation of the Standard Whole Patient Equivalent (SWPE)
· $58.5 million to support Australian’s mental health through the Better Access scheme
· $41.2 million to deliver better health services in regional and rural Australia
· $77 million to improve access to Medicare
· $25.6 million to support COVID-19 efforts through primary care.
RACGP President Dr Karen Price said making telehealth permanent was a big step forward for Australia’s health care system
“This is a significant step forward for general practice and our entire health system. The RACGP has been working hard engaging with Government to make this happen, because we know the value of telehealth for patient care,” she said.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic telehealth has proven to be a valuable complement to face-to-face care, it increased access to care for patients in need and no doubt saved lives. I know patients and GPs alike will be glad and relieved to hear that these services will remain and will continue to support access to care for people across Australia.”
The RACGP President also welcomed the additional funding to practices through the inclusion of ongoing telehealth items in SWPE calculations.
“The RACGP has been calling for the inclusion of telehealth consultations in the SWPE calculation, which underpin practice funding, since telehealth started and it is good to see that the Government recognises telehealth as part of the size of the practice”.
Dr Price said the investment to deliver better health services in regional and rural Australia was sorely needed.
“Addressing Australia’s rural and remote GP workforce deficit is a top priority for the RACGP – everyone deserves access to high-quality primary care regardless of their postcode. The RACGP was pleased to be part of the formal Distribution Priority Area (DPA) review process with the Department of Health to address the doctor shortage crisis, and we welcome these changes.
“We need to attract more GPs to train and work in rural and remote Australia and expanding the DPA classification will help. It means more rural and regional areas will be able to utilise the DPA system when recruiting doctors for their region; they will have more choice of doctors to work in their local communities, and it will lead to increased access to GP and primary care for regional and rural communities.
“I also welcome the Government acting on our proposal to attract doctors and nurse practitioners to rural and remote Australia by waiving all or part of their Higher Education Loan Programme debt. Starting 1 January 2022, the Government will eliminate an eligible individual’s remaining HELP debt after they’ve worked a rural or remote practice for a certain period.
“The rural GP workforce shortage is a complex problem. However, the research shows that incentivising GPs in training to live and work outside of metropolitan areas can help improve access to high quality care for communities in need. And GPs who do train in rural or remote areas are far more likely to remain living and working there, after seeing all the opportunities and benefits of the career and lifestyle.
“Another big change that will help address the rural and remote workforce challenge is the transition of the Australian General Practice Training program back to the specialist colleges, including the RACGP and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform our GP training system and make significant improvements to the distribution of GPs for the long-term benefit of communities Australia-wide, as well as improving the quality of training.”
Dr Price also welcomed the Government extending and increasing its funding commitment by $20 million under the Primary Health Network (PHN) Vulnerable Vaccination Program to 30 June 2022.
“This is a really important initiative in our fight against the deadly COVID-19 virus.
“The Vulnerable Vaccination Program will support the delivery of local, tailored vaccination activities for vulnerable populations, including older Australians, culturally and linguistically diverse people, people with a disability, those who are homebound, not eligible for Medicare, and other vulnerable cohorts.
“These are often hard to reach populations but it is critical that we do reach them, not only to protect the individuals but also the wider community.
“So, there is some good news in the MYEFO announcement for general practices and the communities they serve.
“However, we do have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring Australia has a sustainable primary care system.
“General practice is the bedrock of our health system, and unique in providing holistic person-centred care to a patient throughout their life, not only to help them when they’re sick but also providing preventative care to keep them healthy and out of hospital.
“As such, if we want to ensure the health of our nation and address the looming health crisis Australia faces, rising chronic conditions, mental illness, and the ongoing pandemic, a sustainable primary care system is critical.
“I look forward to engaging Government on the future of Australia’s primary care system, and ensuring general practice is sustainable and thrives into the future. Because all patients deserve access to high-quality healthcare, at an affordable price.”