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Media release

RACGP cautiously welcomes first Australian Atlas of Healthcare Variation

26 November 2015

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has cautiously welcomed a report on healthcare variation in Australia, warning it did not provide information on health outcomes.

The Australian Atlas of Healthcare Variation, launched by Minister for Health Sussan Ley today, presents a picture of substantial variation in healthcare use across Australia, in areas such as antibiotic prescribing, surgical, mental health and diagnostic services.

RACGP President Dr Frank R Jones said the atlas represented the beginning of a journey to understand healthcare variation in Australia, and towards optimising health service delivery.

However, Dr Jones stressed the importance of its limitations.

“We must remember that there are many reasons for variation, such as socioeconomic factors, patient need, and issues of access. Indeed, variation is likely in many instances to be an appropriate response for failings in these areas,” Dr Jones said.

“As clinicians we must engage with this information to see how we can improve the care we deliver.”

Dr Jones said the atlas offered “clues and insights but no answers” to how variation in Australian healthcare services and delivery could affect health outcomes.

“While it is difficult to draw clear conclusions from the atlas, one issue remains sharply in focus, and that is the role socioeconomic status and access issues continue to play in health status,” Dr Jones said.

“It reminds us of the need for systemic changes to the way healthcare is delivered to our communities. Reducing access by freezing Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) rebates and reducing health funding is not going to be the answer.”

Dr Jones said the atlas provided the opportunity to look at the local factors influencing the data to see where improvements were needed and how they could be made.

“For example, antimicrobial prescribing rates are considered too high in general practice and the atlas data also shows high rates of variation. Some of this variation will be appropriate – Australia’s huge climatic variation will play a role and it’s likely that natural disasters, such as the floods or bushfires, will be a factor in the variation we see.”

Dr Jones said the variation in adult asthma dispensing and hospital admission rates suggested socioeconomic factors were critical and most likely linked to smoking rates.

“It’s a complex picture to try and interpret, especially against a backdrop of improving rates in mortality and in some hospital admissions. But with growing rates of multimorbidity and complexity in general practice, the data is a reminder of the huge challenges we face in managing chronic disease,” he said.

“The RACGP will embrace the atlas as an aid to quality improvement. We are committed to supporting the profession in delivering evidence-based care of the highest quality and it poses some important questions that we need to reflect on.”

The RACGP has outlined its Vision for general practice and a sustainable healthcare system and how it can play a stronger role in addressing some of the variation issues identified in the atlas.

Read the atlas in full on the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare website.