The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is urging government to invest in primary care so that GPs can better help patients affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and 2019-20 bushfires.
In its 2021-22 federal pre-budget submission, the RACGP has called on government to:
improve patient access to general practice services through increasing annual indexation of Medicare rebates
introduce new rebates for longer consultations, something that would be particularly beneficial for people with mental health issues, as well as chronic and complex health needs
continue availability of Medicare-subsidised telehealth consultations via telephone and video
introduce innovative new ways of funding GPs to support patients with complex health needs.
RACGP President Dr Karen Price said that general practice needed an extra hand to help patients across Australia.
“2020 was an incredibly trying year and the health implications of the bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic will have to be very carefully managed in the months and years ahead,” she said.
“During the pandemic some patients, including older people and those with chronic conditions and multi-morbidities, delayed or avoided consulting with their GP. Mental health issues soared as people were plunged into a world of uncertainty and separated from loved ones.
“GPs in communities hit by the bushfires are still doing all they can to help people who have lost homes and suffered significant trauma. The job is far from complete and that is why it is vital that general practice has the backing to provide the highest possible standard of care to our patients.”
The RACGP President warned that immediate action was needed to boost primary care.
“GPs and general practice staff have done an incredible job holding the front line, but more help is urgently required,” Dr Price said.
“The unfortunate reality is that the percentage of total government health expenditure on hospitals continues to increase each year, while the percentage spent on primary care has gradually declined.[i]
“The average patient out-of-pocket cost to consult with a GP is now higher than the Medicare rebate for the most commonly used general practice item. Years of inadequate Medicare Benefits Schedule funding has caught up with us.
“The time to act is now. We are managing patients affected by twin public health crises and unless we invest in primary care costs access to healthcare will be severely compromised. Government must act decisively to provide superior support for GPs working tirelessly on the frontline.”
Dr Price said something as simple as facilitating longer GP consultations could make all the difference.
“When patients present with mental health issues it takes time for us to get to the bottom of what they are experiencing,” she said.
“We simply cannot rush this process; however, the reality facing GPs is that the patient’s rebate reduces dramatically per minute if they need to spend more time with us. As things currently stand. there is no unrestricted item for patients to spend more than 40 minutes with their GP discussing their mental health and that is simply not good enough.
“The solution is right in front of us, we must increase patient rebates for longer general practice consultations so that people with concerns about their mental health have the best possible chance of getting the help and support they need. Longer consultations will be so important for these patients as well as those with chronic and complex health needs.”
The RACGP’s Vision for general practice and a sustainable healthcare system (Vision) outlines the urgent need to restructure the healthcare system into one that provides the right care for patients at the right time and in the right place, and that is sustainably funded into the future. It will also promote health equity for demographic groups who disproportionately rely on secondary care including treatment in hospitals.
Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting found that implementing The Vision would create substantial economic benefits by reducing the need for more expensive secondary care and improving the nation’s productivity through a healthier workforce.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health expenditure Australia 2017–18. Health and welfare expenditure series no. 65. Cat. No. HWE 77. Canberra: AIHW, 2019.