GP wait times increase as Australia faces ‘perfect storm’

Harrison Ellem just wants to be like any other 14-year-old and catch up with his friends at school.

But when his asthma is flaring and he can’t get in to see a general practitioner, he has to take days off school so his mother can monitor his health.

“It would be a lot better if I could just get on with my life,” he said.

His mother, Tracy Ellem, said the family relies on seeing their GP regularly to manage Harrison’s asthma.

“We can wait a week or even two weeks for a doctor’s appointment,” she said.

“It’s worrying. Asthma is deadly and that is scary.” 

Data from Australia’s largest healthcare booking platform, Healthengine, reveals many people are waiting longer on average to see a GP.

In NSW, in 2019, people waited just over two-and-a-half days for an appointment. But by May 2022, that had jumped to more than four days.

Delays in Victoria increased from 1.98 days in 2019 to more than three days in 2022.

Healthengine is used by more than 7000 medical practices for patients to book appointments and has 3.9 million active users each month.

Last year, the federal Department of Health commissioned the company to build Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination platform for $3.8 million.

The data shows the average number of days between a person trying to book an appointment online to seeing a doctor.

It does not give insight into whether people opted for earlier appointments with a non-preferred GP, or turned instead to emergency, or tried calling to get a more immediate appointment.

But Dr Bruce Willett, from the Royal Australian College of GPs, says there is no doubt general practitioners are in high demand.

“I’ve been a GP for 35 years now and I haven’t really seen a winter like this, where we’re seeing such extraordinarily high numbers of influenza,” Dr Willett said.

Australia is in the middle of a high flu season.

Data from the National Influenza Surveillance Report shows that up to June 2022, there have been almost 150,000 flu notifications, which is higher than the five-year average.

“Normally, influenza peaks as a late winter phenomenon. On top of that, we’re seeing record numbers of COVID and we’re seeing a whole raft of other viruses like RSV,” Dr Willett said.

“We are seeing a perfect storm of a whole range of issues coming together.

“We’re seeing the chronic underfunding of Medicare, meaning that young medical graduates are not treating general practice as a career – we’re in danger of running out of GPs because of that.

“All of those things are coming together to cause … an acute shortage for now.”

The situation is likely to get worse.

A report by Deloitte released in May this year shows demand for GPs will increase by nearly 40 per cent in the next decade – nearly 50 per cent in the cities. 

But a GP shortfall will mean more than 11,000 doctors desperately needed by Australia’s health system won’t be in the workforce.

“Practices are being forced to either abandon bulk billing or go broke,” Dr Willett said.

“We’ve certainly seen examples of both of those things.”

Doctors call for increase in Medicare rebate

Doctors’ groups have been calling for a substantial increase to the Medicare rebate for GPs, to encourage more medical graduates to enter the field.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule rebate only increased by 1.6 per cent from 1 July this year for most medical services, including GP care.

Advocates fear the issue will worsen when baby boomer GPs retire and the demand for healthcare continues to increase.

Dr Mukesh Haikerwal runs a busy GP practice in Altona, south-west of Melbourne.

Dr Mukesh Haikerwal stands in his practice.
Dr Mukesh Haikerwal says his practice has been able to take on more patients than others as it includes a respiratory clinic. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

He says his practice in Melbourne’s western suburbs is running at 140 per cent capacity.

“This month, we had to close our books for appointments as doctors took their first time off since COVID and could not be covered,” he said.

“We have emergency appointments released every morning and 50 appointments get snapped up as soon as they are available.”

He said he’s onto his third wave of administration staff, such has been the abuse by frustrated patients.

“We are trying to do the right thing by patients but it’s really tough on our staff,” he said.

A spokesman for health minister Mark Butler said the government will set up 50 bulk-billed urgent care clinics across the country, making it easier for people to see a doctor.

The announcement was made during the election campaign.

It has also set up a Medicare taskforce to identify the best ways to improve access to healthcare for patients with chronic illness and will distribute $220 million in grants to GP practices so they can see more patients.

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