18 Jan 2022
As COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in Australia, health systems across the country are buckling under the pressure, with thousands of people being admitted to hospital and hundreds of thousands more being managed in the community.
Beyond COVID-19, there are also mounting concerns surrounding the needs of an ageing population, rising rates of chronic disease and mental health.
To ensure the health system is equipped to respond, the RACGP has released an Election Statement urging the Federal Government to adopt a series of reforms aimed at improving patient health outcomes and ensuring the viability of general practice into the future.
Speaking to reporters following the statement’s launch, RACGP President Dr Karen Price said the pandemic has both exacerbated and highlighted the cracks in Australia’s health system, and that GPs should be adequately remunerated for managing a growing number of complex presentations.
‘General practice is at the forefront of prevention and chronic disease management, [but] more Commonwealth investment is needed to deliver on this vital role,’ Dr Price said.
‘We want time to care for our patients [and] we want longer consults rewarded at the same value as shorter consults.
‘Good care requires time – time to listen, time to assess, time to collaborate with multidisciplinary healthcare providers and time to work with families. More time with a patient will ensure care is of higher quality.’
Dr Price said the pandemic has demonstrated the true value of general practice in keeping people safe, both through continued access to care via telehealth services and the delivery of more than 20 million COVID vaccinations.
Despite this, however, general practice continues to be allocated the smallest proportion of funding from the health budget, at just 7.4%.
To improve the delivery of patient-centred primary care, enhance the system’s quality and long-term sustainability, the RACGP is calling for urgent action on five general practice initiatives, including:
federal investment in longer consultations for complex cases
improved support for continuous and preventive care for vulnerable Australians, particularly aged care, mental health, and disability
a GP consultation within seven days of an unplanned hospital admission to reduce the chances of readmission
providing greater incentives and rebates for rural GPs to gain and maintain additional skills to benefit their community
reinstating Medicare items for longer telehealth telephone consultations, mental health, and GP management plans as part of the permanent telehealth model.
Though the Federal Government has committed to funding Level C telephone consults for another six months, the college is calling for the feature to become permanent, along with funding of Level D consultations to support complex care.
‘We know that all of these initiatives save the whole system money,’ Dr Price said.
‘It’s actually an investment, and it’s protecting and keeping hospital systems for those who really need it and letting general practice get on with the job of doing what we do best.’
The initiatives, which form part of the RACGP’s Vision for general practice and a sustainable healthcare system, are backed by evidence.
The PricewaterhouseCoopers report, commissioned by the college, found that improved investment in general practice will reduce spending on secondary care and save the healthcare system at least $1 billion in the first year, and more than $5.6 billion over the next five.
‘We know that the hospital system has an investment of $74 billion … and at the moment the health budget for general practice is 7.4% of the total health spend,’ Dr Price said.
‘One hospital admission for a patient [is equivalent to giving] us the ability to see that patient in general practice twice a week, every week, for an entire year.
‘So general practice, by comparison, is a really efficient use of healthcare resources.’
Without further investment, there are also grave concerns for the future viability of general practice, which is increasingly being felt by practices. The RACGP’s latest Health of the Nation report found that 50% of practice owners are concerned about the long-term sustainability of their practice.
Dr Price said that without further investment, it is ultimately the most vulnerable patients who will suffer, including patients who identify as Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander, those with chronic disease and from a low socioeconomic background.
‘We know some of our members are seriously struggling to keep their clinics afloat while making sure their patients receive the best possible healthcare,’ she said.
‘Our communities rely on these GPs and without them, many patients will find themselves having to travel much further afield and being placed on long waiting lists to receive basic healthcare.’
As part of its Election Statement, the RACGP is also urging the Government to invest in initiatives to boost equality in health and life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
But to ultimately ensure quality and efficient patient-centred care, Dr Price said both the college and hospital colleagues are calling for the same end goal: one integrated health system.
‘At the moment, we have the states running the hospitals and we have the Federal Government running general practice and there’s a big war between that in terms of communication and oversight,’ she said.
‘If we have one health system, we’d be able to enable the hospitals to very quickly manage that patient into a GP consultation within seven days – that actually saves $69 million to avoid another readmission for that patient due to all sorts of issues that could include medication management and understanding what actually happened to them within that time in hospital.
‘GPs are ready for the challenges ahead, but we need a strong commitment now from the Government to make sure that GPs are available where they are needed, can meet the challenges of the future, and can work in the health systems of tomorrow.
‘It’s time for reform. It’s time for more investment. It’s time for care.’