Pandemic treatment of GPs ‘insulting’: RACGP

4 minute read

If the early submissions are anything to go by, the inquiry into Australia’s covid response will not be a pat on the back for the government.

The RACGP has lambasted the government’s apparent disregard for general practice during the pandemic in its submission to the national covid-19 response inquiry, while the AMA highlighted the confusion and frustration over successive telehealth rule changes.

The peak medical bodies aren’t alone in the call for better resourced primary care, either – the Grattan Institute’s detailed submission recommends reforming primary care and chronic disease management funding as a key measure to mitigate the next pandemic.

Announced in September last year, the independent inquiry is looking at the policies and supports put in place across health, industry and the community during the initial pandemic response.

It’s spearheaded by epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett, health economist Dr Angela Jackson and senior bureaucrat Robyn Kruk, who recently led a review of the settings for overseas trained doctors.

Public consultation is open now, with a final report due in September.

The RACGP submission called for GPs to be formally recognised as frontline health workers from the get-go – anything less compromises community safety, college president Dr Nicole Higgins said.

“As private businesses that don’t fall under the responsibility of state governments, state governments and agencies failed to incorporate and consider GPs,” the submission said.

“Hospital staff and emergency services were prioritised, and GPs were not considered frontline workers, which was insulting and affected the morale of the profession.”

The fact that GPs were forced to source their own PPE, often at exorbitant prices, left doctors feeling frustrated and unsafe at work, the college said.

Dr Higgins described the treatment of GPs during the pandemic as an “afterthought” and called for proper resourcing ahead of time, including the establishment of official PPE distribution channels.

She also criticised the compliance activity which took place mid-pandemic, most notably the telehealth compliance campaign of 2021.

“I call on the government to give us a break,” Dr Higgins said.

According to the submission, the March 2021 telehealth compliance campaign caused “significant distress” to GPs, was “unnecessary and unhelpful” and potentially limited patient access to care.

The way telehealth rule changes were handled also copped criticism from the AMA in its submission to the independent inquiry.

“The Government was too willing to limit access to telehealth by telephone during times of increased spread in the community,” the association said.

“For example, in July 2021 telehealth by telephone items were significantly restricted while Sydney was experiencing a severe outbreak, then again in January 2022 during the Omicron wave.

“The AMA had to repeatedly intervene to seek extensions or changes to ensure doctors could provide telehealth to patients who required it.”

In one instance, it said, telehealth item extensions were announced on 18 September but not put into action until 30 September, creating chaos for practices that had already booked telehealth appointments for the intervening two weeks.

Areas where the AMA did feel the government had done well included choosing general practice to commence the vaccine rollout, as well as taking a collaborative and constructive approach to consulting with the medical community.

The association ended its submission by encouraging the taskforce to hold the government to account.

“We are concerned that governments are all too willing to put the past behind us and not seek to properly evaluate and learn from Australia’s response to the covid-19 pandemic – likely because this might invite criticism of their actions,” it said.

Not for profit think thank Grattan Institute, meanwhile, chose to focus its submission entirely on primary and preventative care systems.

The government’s main failing, it argued, was that it allowed existing health gaps in disadvantaged populations to widen.

“The federal government must urgently push to close these gaps before the next pandemic,” the submission read.

“Otherwise, Australia’s chronic disease burden will continue to grow, with some communities much sicker than others.

“That will mean more sickness and death from a future pandemic, and greater risk of the health system being overwhelmed.”

The best way to create an equal system, the Grattan Institute policy researchers said, is to properly resource primary care.

It referenced the new MyMedicare blended funding model as having the potential to equalise care in some areas, but noted that it would not solve the rural workforce crisis.

The window to lodge submissions with the pandemic response inquiry was initially meant to close just before Christmas 2023, but was still open at time of writing.

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