by Peter Breadon, Danielle Romanes
The way GPs work and get paid should be overhauled so Australia can turn the tide of chronic disease, keep more people out of hospital, and ensure poorer Australians get the care they need when they need it.
The report by the Grattan Institute calls on the Albanese government to fix the system, warning that “Medicare is in the grip of a mid-life crisis”.
It says blunty: “Medicare no longer works, for patients or GPs.”
Australia’s universal healthcare system has failed to keep up with changes to Australians’ health needs since it started four decades ago.
GPs’ work has become much more complex, as the population has grown older and rates of mental ill-health and chronic disease have climbed. But the way we structure and fund general practice hasn’t kept up.
Despite patient care becoming more complex, appointments have been stuck at an average length of 15 minutes for the past two decades. GPs are struggling to meet their patients’ needs, and they lack the support of a broader team of health professionals to do so.
Other countries have reformed general practice, and their rates of avoidable hospital visits for chronic disease are falling. But Australia is spending more on hospitals while neglecting general practice: the best place to tackle chronic disease.
Patients suffer the consequences. People with chronic disease live shorter lives, with more years of ill-health, and lower earnings. Poorer Australians suffer the most: they are twice as likely to have multiple chronic diseases as wealthy Australians.
Australia’s healthcare workers are also struggling. Hospital staff are overwhelmed with demand. And GPs tell us they are stressed, disrespected, and disillusioned.
To bring Medicare into the 21st Century, the report recommends big changes.
First, general practice needs to become a team sport, with many clinicians working under the leadership of a GP to provide more and better care.
To achieve this, the federal government will have to dismantle the regulatory and funding barriers that force GPs to go it alone. To accelerate the change, 1,000 more clinicians, such as nurses and physiotherapists, should be employed in general practices in the communities that need them most.
Second, Australia needs to change the way GPs are paid. The current method is broken – it actively discourages GPs from working with teams, and it rewards GPs who see lots of patients in quick succession, rather than spending more time with patients who need more care.
GPs should be able to choose a new funding model that supports team care and enables them to spend more time on complex cases, by combining appointment fees with a flexible budget for each patient based on their level of need.
Third, Australia must give clinics the data, funding, and support they need to give the best possible care to their patients.
Medicare is in the grip of a mid-life crisis. The reforms we propose will give more patients better care, and boost GPs’ job satisfaction.
And the reform plan is affordable. The Albanese Government has set aside $250 million a year to fix Medicare. That money can fund the recommendations in this report, repairing the foundation of Australia’s healthcare system and creating a new Medicare that is ready for the decades ahead.