21 November 2022

GPs from across Australia descend on Parliament calling for reforms to help patients in need

GPs from across Australia are visiting Parliament House in Canberra today to call for reforms to ensure every patient can access the care they need when they need it.

Some 27 GPs will meet with politicians from all political parties and independents to voice concerns about the ailing state of primary care in a visit organised by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

They will also welcome the launch of the Parliamentary Friends of General Practice at a breakfast meeting with politicians, including Hon Mark Butler MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care. The Parliamentary Friends of General Practice will be Co-Chaired by National Party Senator Susan McDonald, Labor MP Dr Gordon Reid, and Independent MP Dr Sophie Scamps.

It comes after the RACGP held a General Practice Crisis Summit in Canberra in October, in response to mounting evidence that general practice is on the brink, with almost half of all GPs surveyed for the 2022 Health of the Nation report saying it is financially unsustainable for them to continue working as a GP.

RACGP President Adj. Professor Karen Price said the GPs hoped to send a strong message to Australia’s leaders.

“We need change, and we need it now,” she said.

“Government after government have taken funding away from general practice patients, and because of these actions, right across Australian people are missing out on the care they need, and they are suffering.

“Our population is ageing, and we are dealing with increasing rates of chronic disease, mental health concerns, and people with multiple conditions requiring complex care. And this, together with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the community need for GP care hit a scale never seen before.

“Let me be clear – there is no substitute for GPs, that path will result in poor health outcomes for patients.

“GPs play a unique role in the health system because we don’t just treat illness, we keep people well by providing comprehensive, whole-person care and preventative care, which keeps people out of hospital – and also reduces spending on expensive hospital care.

“Our health system is broken, and patients are the ones suffering most. The RACGP is continuing to urge Australia’s leaders to fix the system, and pivot healthcare funding to prevent illness and keep people well in the community.

“The current model of healthcare funding in our country is extremely lopsided – more Australians visit a GP every year than any other service in our entire health system, but funding for general practice patients is less than 8% of total government health spending.

“On the other hand, if we were to invest more in preventative care for Australians, and measures to keep people well in the community supported by their GP, we will have a healthier population, higher productivity, and lower spending on expensive hospital care. It just makes sense.”

Independent MP Dr Sophie Scamps said: “GPs are the cornerstone of our health system however general practice is currently in crisis. There is a desperate shortage of GPs across the country and if general practice collapses, our whole health system could be imperilled. As a former GP, I’ll be using my voice in Parliament to ensure we build a robust primary healthcare system that supports the health of all Australians.”

National Party Senator Susan McDonald said: “Access to healthcare is extremely important in rural and regional Australia, and makes those places more liveable and attractive to young families.

“The Parliamentary Friends of General Practice is a bipartisan group where we can discuss the issues related to getting more GPs to these areas, and most importantly, the solutions.

“I very much look forward to working with the RACGP to encourage more GPs to consider careers in the regions.”

Labor MP Dr Gordon Reid said: “General practice is critical for a healthy society. It is the key component to ensure that our health system is proactive, rather than reactive.

“As a doctor working in the emergency department, I have seen firsthand, why general practice is vital for our community, it is essential to ensure high quality, patient-centred care.

“Without general practice, the Australian health system would collapse. This is the reason why we have united in support, to achieve outcomes which will benefit the health of the community.”

One of the GPs who has travelled to Canberra to send a message to politicians is Dr Toby Gardner, who has a practice in Launceston, in northern Tasmania.

“Tasmania’s population is among Australia’s oldest, sickest and poorest, and we have the lowest health literacy,” he said.

“And part of the reason we have such a sick population is that too many people struggle to access the care they need.

“Our state is particularly challenging, because while people think Tassie is small, we actually have lots of regional and hard to reach remote towns, which is where people really struggle to access GP care, and most people live outside of our capital city.

“Where I live and work in Northern Tasmania, we are short around 20-30 GPs, and it’s set to get worse because we’re seeing GPs retire and not be replaced, and fewer junior doctors are going into GP training. And many of the doctors that do their GP training in Tasmania leave to work in capital cities on the mainland.

“I myself am booked out until the 3rd of March. We have 28 GPs in our practice, but we still struggle to meet the demand.

“What I find particularly heart breaking to see is the patients who are on low incomes, and don’t have money set aside for their health. And there aren’t any universal bulk billing practices in Northern Tasmania left, because Medicare patient rebates are too low to make it viable.

“So, patients who don’t have money set aside will wait until they can get in to see a GP who will bulk bill them, and sometimes they’ll be waiting months, and in the meantime their health is deteriorating.

“My books are full of patients with complex, chronic health issues, and we’ve also seen a huge surge in people needing treatment for mental health issues. And they need a lot of time, which puts more strain on our capacity to see other patients.

“It is frankly shameful that in a country like Australia, it is those people who need the most help who are the most disadvantaged by the current healthcare funding model.

“We urgently need more investment in primary care, and general practice in particular. We need to get more GPs working in the communities that need them most, because while telehealth is great as a complement to face-to-face care, it’s critical to have doctors on the ground.

“And we need to make general practice the profession of choice for medical students and junior doctors. As a GP myself, I know just how rewarding the career is, it’s so rich with variety and opportunity to build ongoing relationships with patients and the community, and really see the impact of your work. The right funding, support and promotion of our profession would make a real difference.”

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 prevents illness, and provides the right care for patients when and where they need it, and is sustainably funded into the future.

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. 

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