Managing emergencies in general practice

Part A – Introduction to emergency planning in Australian general practice

Importance of emergency planning in general practice

Last revised: 21 Jan 2020

General practice is the linchpin of Australia’s health service infrastructure. GPs and practice teams are at the forefront of medical care, providing Australians with access to quality healthcare on a daily basis. In 2015–16, 82% of the Australian population had seen a GP in the previous 12 months.5

In an emergency, it is generally expected that the demand for healthcare services will rise.6 During previous emergency responses, GPs and practice teams have consistently worked to provide individuals with the best care possible. They have demonstrated their commitment to the communities they serve during emergencies by ensuring that individuals requiring urgent medical attention were seen. Further, they have been integral in providing ongoing care to people residing in affected areas.

This commitment reinforces the ongoing critical role that GPs and practice teams play in responding to emergencies, from the immediate and acute phase to the long-term recovery phase.

It is crucial that general practices are able to continue providing essential services during emergencies. In order to do this, it is imperative that they have an up-to-date emergency response plan so that they are prepared, well stocked and ready to respond to any crisis.

Practices that are prepared for an emergency are more likely to have effective continuity of care arrangements for their patients while ensuring that business operations continue to run as smoothly as possible. Furthermore, practices that have a tested emergency response plan will ultimately be better positioned to respond to the health needs of their communities.

The aim of the guide is to assist general practices to better prepare for, respond to and recover from the impact of emergencies. The guide is an educational resource for general practice staff during emergency preparations and response efforts.

While it is important for practices to be engaged in emergency planning processes at a practice level, it is equally important for them to participate in emergency planning processes within the wider community. The hospital sector is often represented on local emergency planning committees and there is little or no representation from the primary care sector.

To remedy the lack of primary care representation on local disaster planning committees, GPs and relevant practice staff are encouraged to engage with and/or participate in local disaster planning committees. However, it is equally important that the primary care sector be supported by governments so that they are well placed to continue providing vital services to their patients and their communities, especially in their time of need.
While this guide has been specifically developed for the general practice setting, professionals working in other primary care settings might find it useful during their emergency preparations.

Emergencies are unpredictable. They can strike any area at any time and can cause a great deal of damage, injury, human suffering and loss of life. General practices can be adversely affected by emergencies in a variety of ways, including:

  • minor or significant damage to the practice’s infrastructure
  • increased demand for services
  • increased presentation of patients with injuries or highly infectious symptoms
  • loss of critical equipment and supplies
  • loss of access to key information
  • loss of access to essential systems, networks and communication
  • reduction in capacity and the loss of key staff
  • loss of/disruption to power supply • loss of/contamination of water supply
  • practice closure.

It is essential that business owners undertake appropriate emergency planning and preparation activities. This will help to reduce the overall impact of an emergency and assist practices with business/service provision continuity. While general practices essentially operate as private businesses, they are unique in the sense that they provide essential health services to individuals within the community.

Some practices may see fewer patients attend the practice during an emergency as a result of damaged infrastructure and access issues. Conversely, other practices may see an increase of patients attending due to injuries sustained during the event.

Comprehensive planning can assist in reducing the overall impact of an emergency on practices, practice staff and patients; and reduce liability and financial loss due to damages sustained during an emergency or business disruption. Furthermore, investing time and effort in developing a well-thought-out emergency response plan will help to expedite the recovery process.

Engaging in simple emergency planning activities will ensure your practice’s preparedness and confidence when responding to an emergency. Overall, practices that have an up-to-date emergency response plan will be better positioned to respond to an emergency.

Box 1 illustrates a potential loss of earnings due to a practice closing down for one day.

Box 1. Potential loss of earnings for closure of a practice for one day

Major emergency events may affect a practice for many days or even weeks and can have devastating effects on poorly prepared practices. If a practice is impacted by an emergency such as a flood or fire, the practice may be forced to close until appropriate repairs are made. Closure of the practice will result in a loss of earnings.
If a practice with four full-time equivalent GPs were to close for a single day, the practice could potentially lose $9600. This figure is based on the assumption that all four GPs work two full sessions (approximately 3.5 hours each), seeing 20 patients in each session, where the average fee is $60.

It is important to note that some overheads such as staffing costs will remain the same. However, there may be a small reduction in other overhead costs such as consumables, electricity, gas and water bills, etc.

  1. Commonwealth of Australia. Attorney-General’s Department. Disaster health – Handbook 1. Canberra: Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2011.
  2. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Geneva: IFRC, 2013. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  3. Australian Red Cross and Australian Psychological Society. Psychological first aid: An Australian guide to supporting people affected by disaster. Carlton, Vic: Australian Red Cross, 2013. Australian_Guide.pdf [Accessed 21 March 2017].
  4. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities. The economic cost of the social impact of natural disasters. Sydney: Deloitte Access Economics, 2016. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Patient experiences in Australia: Summary of findings, 2015–16. Belconnen, ACT: ABS, 2016. [Accessed 23 March 2017].
  6. Commonwealth of Australia. Department of Health and Ageing. Review of Australia’s health sector response to pandemic (H1N1) 2009: Lessons identified. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing, 2011. [Accessed 29 March 2017].
  7. NSW Health and University of Western Sydney. Disaster Mental Health Manual 2012. University of Western Sydney: Disaster Response and Resilience Research Group, 2012. Documents/disaster-mental-health-manual.pdf [Accessed 28 March 2017].
  8. Neria Y, Galea S, Norris F. Mental health and disasters. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  9. Bryant R. The impact of natural disasters on mental health. InPsych April 2009. impact_disasters [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  10. Australian Psychological Society. Psychological preparation for natural disasters. Melbourne: APS, 2017. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  11. Kessler RC, Galea S, Gruber MJ, Sampson NA, Ursano RJ, Wessely S. Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Mol Psychiatry 2008;(4):374–84.
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