RACGP president to turn up the political heat

4 minute read

Dr Nicole Higgins has promised to haunt Canberra when parliament’s sitting to ensure the RACGP has ‘a seat at every table’.

The RACGP’s new president, Dr Nicole Higgins, has entered office with a promise to lobby hard for the political reforms needed to reverse the crisis in general practice.

“The sound of 40,000-plus RACGP members and their patients moving is incredibly loud – we have a great deal of influence together,” Dr Higgins said in her opening address to the college’s GP22 conference in Melbourne over the weekend, attended by 1500 GPs and other health professionals.

Dr Higgins called on RACGP members to invite their MP to their surgery to see how a GP actually works.

But rallying the membership may prove to be a significant challenge. The profession is exhausted and demoralised, and while more than 40,000 fellows, members and registrar associates were eligible to vote on resolutions put to Thursday night’s AGM, well below 3000 participated.

Her address reflected recommendations of the college’s crisis summit in October, which were released in a white paper on the opening day of the conference. Dr Higgins also referenced a successful visit to Canberra earlier in the week during which 27 health professionals held around 90 meetings with key government figures, including Health Minister Mark Butler.

“What I’ve realised [from the meetings], is that politicians have got very low health literacy, especially when it comes to general practice, and that is an opportunity for us,” she said.

“We need to educate them, we need to tell our stories about general practice. I need you to ask your MPs into your practices for morning tea. They need to see how we work and why.

“I’ve asked the RACGP for a stronger and more focused advocacy team to support us both nationally and at state level,” Dr Higgins said. “General practice is the solution to the Australian healthcare crisis – it’s that simple, and we’ve had enough. We also need to tell our story that general practice is the cost-efficient engine house for the Australian healthcare system.”

Dr Higgins said the RACGP will also need to demonstrate financial value to its membership.

The college posted an operating deficit of $1.17m in 2021/22, with a total deficit of $1.65m, largely due to investment activities. Because of this, members voted at the AGM not to increase the board’s remuneration in 2023-24 other than to include pay for the new NT faculty chair and to reflect federal mandated increases to superannuation.

However, the RACGP still has strong net equity of $65.44m, comprising a $18.27m surplus, cash reserves of $11.38m and property revaluations of $35.80m.

Dr Higgins said she had been asked many times whether she planned to move from Mackay once her presidency commenced.

“My answer is that the RACGP is a truly national organisation, where 52% of our membership gained their qualifications from overseas, where half of our membership is rural, and out of those rural doctors, 90% are RACGP members. Covid has taught us that general practice – and GPs – are responsive and we can work from anywhere.

“So, I’m not leaving Mackay, but I will be spending a lot of time in Canberra. When parliament is sitting, I’ll make sure the RACGP has a seat at every table.

“My promise to you, the members, is to serve you with fierceness, with humility, and with integrity.”

The RACGP’s immediate past president, Adjunct Professor Karen Price, struck a similar tone in her address.

“As professionals, we must actively and rebelliously resist [government and media attacks on general practice],” she said. “We must declare that we are the experts in complexity and in general practice.”

In the wake of the Nine newspapers/ABC “rorts” reporting, “the RACGP fought for you, and we fought hard”, Professor Price added.

“We also delivered a consensus and a lot of academic details on health system reform at the October summit. We delivered political advocacy in Canberra [last week], with 90 individual parliamentary meetings in two days.

“Thanks to continued advocacy by the RACGP, the political class are actually starting to understand.”

Many college members would disagree. Sources who spoke to TMR in the run-up to the RACGP presidential elections said they expected the college to be doing much more for its membership.

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