Older and poorer see GPs most

A report released today by the National Health Performance Authority (NHPA) has revealed that Australians who visit the doctor most often are more likely to be older and poorer and would be harder hit by the introduction of a ‘price signal’ than those who visit their GP less often.

The government announced two weeks ago that it would scrap plans to cut Medicare rebates by $5, allowing doctors to charge patients this amount; but it is continuing to explore other avenues that will make more people pay to see a doctor.

The report, One in every eight Australians sees a GP at least 12 times a year shows that the people most likely to be affected by the introduction of a price signal would also then make fewer visits to see a doctor, simply because they could no longer afford it. This group includes not only older and poorer Australians, but also those with complex and chronic health conditions whose need for access to medical services is considered imperative.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president, Associate Professor Brian Owler believes the report shows that the people who most frequently seek GP assistance generally suffer from long-term health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and that better management of these patients by GPs would be more beneficial to the bottom line of the health system in the long run by keeping them out of hospitals in the first place.

The report shows that around 13 per cent of Australians will see a GP more than 12 times a year, which accounts for up to 41 per cent of Medicare spending. And whilst this group is less likely to have private health insurance, they are more likely to require visits to specialists and hospital emergency departments, and need pathology tests and diagnostic imaging. The average Australian visits a GP 5.6 times a year.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) president Frank Jones believes that patients who need to visit doctors more frequently would actually benefit the most from an ongoing relationship with a single regular GP.

“When a GP has a longitudinal continuous clinical relationship with their patients, their health problems can be resolved more effectively and efficiently,” Dr Jones said. “Patients are also more likely to receive quality preventative care and this results in healthier patients and fewer hospital visits.”

Read more at The Age.

Read the NHPA report.

Opinion: Why hurt those who need it most?

It’s hoped that the government will take stock from this report, as it reinforces what many have been saying for a long time – that people with low income, or living off a fixed income, simply cannot afford to foot the bill for health care.

The argument that the introduction of a price signal would reduce frivolous visits to doctors and the cost of health care across the board just doesn’t hold water. If patients with chronic illness are discouraged from visiting GPs, it is more likely to lead to increased costs for the health care system. But if patients have improved access to health care, their health issues can be sorted out sooner – hence easing the burden of the cost of health care down the line.

Why then, does the government not look at subsidising health care on a case-by-case basis? Rather than a blanket legislation that will force all patients to pay extra for medical assistance, why not target those who can actually afford to pay for doctors? Why not scrutinise those who are taking advantage of the current health care system, rather than penalising everyone – especially those who can least afford it.

Re-assessing the qualifying criteria for access to free, or subsidised health care seems to me to be a no-brainer, but then again, what do I know? What I can safely say is that this government has proven time and again that they are unwilling to take from the rich and give to the poor.

What do you think? Should a new system of case-by-case assessments be introduced, to help differentiate between those who are in most need of health care but can least afford it, from those who can afford to pay for their own medical costs? Would increased costs for GP visits reduce the number of times you go to the doctor?

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