The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has welcomed a package of new measures to help GPs care for COVID-19-positive patients in the community.
It follows concerns about shortfalls in the current system of caring for COVID-19-positive patients at home.
The measures include:
the national network of Primary Health Networks (PHNs) providing GPs responsible for supervising COVID-19-positive patients with pulse oximeters, which are small devices usually placed on a person’s fingertip to measure oxygen saturation
a new Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item of $25 to provide support to general practices for the additional cost of treating COVID-19-positive patients face-to-face while maintaining COVID-19-safe infection prevention and controls
the operation of 150 GP-led respiratory clinics being extended to 30 June 2022.
RACGP President Dr Karen Price welcomed the announcement.
“It is good news that the Federal Government has heeded the RACGP’s calls and introduced this suite of measures to help hardworking GPs care for COVID-19-positive patients,” she said.
“We must be upfront about the fact that COVID-19 cases are going to spike significantly across Australia. GPs stand ready to help, we have the right skills and expertise to continue caring for COVID-19-positive patients in the community.
“Some COVID-19-positive patients, particularly the unvaccinated, will require hospital care; however, there will be a much larger group of patients who can be adequately monitored at home as part of a triaging process, and this will take pressure off the entire public health system. People who test positive for COVID-19 are most likely to only experience mild symptoms and recover without requiring special treatment or hospitalisation.
“Our hospitals are already under enormous pressure, including caring for unvaccinated patients suffering from severe effects of COVID-19. So, it’s vital we do everything we can to keep patients out of hospital and that includes caring for people with COVID-19 in the community where possible.
“We must make sure we have the right systems in place to help the growing numbers of patients who will contract the virus and require careful monitoring. I imagine that this is a work in progress, and that additional supports may be required.
“A key component of this is ensuring that GPs are kept in the loop. We need to be told right away when one of our patients tests positive to COVID-19, not days or weeks later. Otherwise, we will see situations unfolding where patients are forced to call ambulances and taken to already over-stretched hospitals where this potentially could have been avoided.”
The RACGP President said that the measures announced today could not come soon enough.
“Something as straightforward as providing pulse oximeters from the National Medical Stockpile to GPs will make a real difference,” she said.
“The international evidence clearly shows that these pulse oximeters are a cost-effective monitoring technology to alert the patient and GP to any deterioration so that care be escalated if needed.
“The new Medicare Benefits Schedule item for face-to-face visits is also a positive step forward. Many COVID-19-positive patients will be able to take advantage of telehealth services, including via video or telephone.
“Some consultations, however, need to happen in person and, when that is necessary, general practice teams will be working hard to maintain COVID-19-safe infection controls to keep staff and patients safe. The new MBS item will help offset the cost of having these controls in place.
“Healthdirect will provide national infrastructure to support COVID-19-positive patient contact and triage. That is an important development because we need national consistency.
“It is also great news that the operation of GP-led respiratory clinics will be extended to 30 June next year. These clinics have been used to assess people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms and they can be scaled up to assess and manage more patients as case numbers spike.”
Dr Price urged patients to take care of themselves in the months ahead.
“My message to all patients is that you can help limit community transmission of the virus and pressures on the entire health system by getting vaccinated, encouraging friends and family to do the same and getting tested if you feel unwell,” she said.
“As COVID-19 cases rise, please don’t delay or avoid any screenings or consultations with your GP. Telehealth services are available and, if you need a face-to-face consultation, we will have infection prevention and control measures in place.
“Please have any health concerns, including mental health issues, taken care of by your GP right away. Don’t be a stranger, we are here to help.”