Time to take a stand against attacks on GPs

4 minute read

Politicians have a long history of denigrating doctors in order to pitch sketchy health policies to a cautious public

Politicians have a long and unabated history of denigrating doctors in order to pitch sketchy health policies to a cautious public, writes Elise Buisson

Since 1988, market research company Roy Morgan has set aside a day a year to ?nd out which profession Australians trust the most. A random phone survey asks participants to rate each of 30 occupations on honesty and ethical standards.

In a list that includes High Court judges, school teachers and the police, where do doctors stand? They’re in second place – behind our close cousins the nurses – with 86% of this year’s respondents giving doctors a “high” or “very high” ethics and honesty rating.

This isn’t a surprising ?nding for doctors, nor for their patients; doctors care for people when they’re at their most vulnerable, and that both requires and bestows trust.

Researchers didn’t ask participants which doctor they were thinking about when they made a judgment on the ethical standards of the medical profession as a whole. I’d place my bets, however, that their minds were on their general practitioners.

Watching the progression of health politics over the years, you’d hardly believe this high community standing to be the case. Politicians have a long and unabated history of denigrating doctors in order to pitch sketchy health policies to a cautious public.

At this point it is perhaps worth mentioning that the same Roy Morgan poll placed politicians on an ethics and honest rating of just 17%. Examples of such attacks are fresh in all of our memories, and they affect GPs over and above the profession as a whole.

In 2001, Health Minister Michael Wooldridge found himself facing legal action after remarking that AMA President Kerryn Phelps lacked quali?cations, insinuating she was “just a GP”. In 2014, along came the GP co-payment. In 2016, the ongoing Medicare rebate indexation freeze continues to land yet another blow.

As the leaders of our country whittle away at the ?nancial viability of general practice, the future of the medical profession begin to turn away. A recently published study on student views of general practice painted a bleak picture – the most commonly reported disadvantages of becoming a GP were descriptions of the work as “boring”, “low paid”, and “low prestige”.

The government has overseen a sustained attack on general practice which has played no small role in creating medical students who are uninterested and disengaged. In a nation that’s spent considerable time and money encouraging medical graduates to become generalists, the government is actively contributing to the negative stereotypes surrounding general practice.

Engaging with campaigns against the Medicare freeze gives GPs a collective voice against this attack against them, and their patients. A number of medical bodies have spoken out about the negative impacts of this policy, and we should add our voices and join them. Advocacy against the freeze is crucial, and general practitioners are uniquely positioned to do it. After all, they have conversations with more voting Australians per day than politicians on the campaign trail do.

Perhaps the most important component of this advocacy is in taking a stand against the prevailing attitude towards general practice that the freeze re?ects. I’ve heard some fellow medical students describe the recent intersection of politics and general practice as “the fall”. The fall from prestige, the fall from viability. To conceive of this period of time as the start of the fall of general practice is disheartening – it’s also not necessarily accurate, and it is certainly not inevitable. GPs remain the foundation of our health system, they make up a sizeable component of the medical profession as a whole and above all, they continue to hold the community’s trust.

When the medical profession is attacked, the public are watching. The stakes are high when one of the most trusted groups in society comes to blows with the government. When GPs are the focus of negative health policy it’s even more relatable.

Every Australian can connect the Medicare freeze to a GP whom they know and trust; with GPs, it’s personal. This is why attacks on GPs are such foundational blows. If you can bring down the reputation of the GPs, community belief in the entire profession falls.

Australians will always need their committed and courageous GPs to advocate for their health as an individual patient. As long as the Medicare rebate indexation freeze continues, GPs need to advocate against it on behalf of those same patients, and on behalf of the future of the profession. Fight the freeze, and, most of all, ?ght the fall.

Elise Buisson is President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association

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