“At one level, of all the pressures on the healthcare system, the thing that worries me the most right now is the state of general practice, which I think is the most parlous state it’s been in in the 40-year history of Medicare,” said Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister of Australia.
General practitioners (GPs) are the backbone of the Australian healthcare system and are frequently the patient’s first point of contact. While Australia has one of the best healthcare system in the world, on the surface, general practice has been in trouble for some time, facing a talent shortage crisis. To make matters worse, the pandemic created even greater demand for GPs and other health professionals.
The Deloitte Access Economics report estimates a shortfall of 11,392 (28%) full-time GPs in Australia by 2032. This means that access to healthcare services is becoming increasingly limited, and the cost of care is rising.
So, what can be done to address this issue? In order to tackle the problem, it is important to understand the underlying cause of the shortage.
The “Terrifying Trend” of GP Shortfall…
One significant factor is Australia’s aging population; the aging baby boomers are requiring more medical services than younger generations. At the same time, medical schools are not producing enough young doctors who are prepared for primary care roles. According to MJA (The Medical Journal of Australia), only 15% of medical graduates have been choosing general practice for the past 10 years. As a result, there are not enough new GPs entering the market to meet the increasing demand for care.
Another factor exacerbating this situation is that many GPs have chosen to move away from rural areas with fewer work opportunities. This has resulted in an unequal distribution of healthcare resources between rural and urban areas; rural communities often have had fewer GPs per capita than their urban counterparts. Additionally, low wages and high workloads have caused some GPs to leave the field altogether or switch to different specialties that may be more profitable or less demanding. This further reduces the availability of primary care providers across Australia.
Broadly speaking, the specialty is no longer appealing; more extended hours, never-ending workloads, more patients, less time, and an increased administrative burden have contributed to GP burnout and a reduced capacity to provide care.
A Virtual Care Model: The Answer to the GP Shortage
While the traditional brick-and-mortar healthcare model is slowly disintegrating; the health tech industry is expanding. Virtual healthcare has the potential to address many of the current problems. In addition to this, increased awareness and education on virtual health services could be the crisis’s silver lining.
The Patient’s Point of View: “We Want a Streamlined Approach to Patient Care”
Dr. Andrew Thompson, Medical Director at InstantScripts, Australia’s renowned online health platform, believes Australia should transition to a “shared care” model in which patients see online doctors as needed while continuing to see their primary doctor for long-term care. He says, “In an increasingly digitalized healthcare environment, the answer to ensuring all Australians have quick and easy access to healthcare services while maintaining the quality of patient care is changing how we understand the continuity of care.”
For instance, people need not see their regular doctor in person just to get a medical certificate or a prescription refill. A shared care model simply makes more sense from this standpoint, which also helps ease the workload of GPs. Digital platforms such as Australia’s MyGov ‘My Health Record’ give GPs quick and easy access to an individual’s medical history. This allows a patient’s regular GP to be updated on any treatments they receive elsewhere, connecting traditional continuity of patient care with modernized shared care.
An Instrascripts survey data reveals that 69% of Australians would like to avoid an in-person visit to a GP during the winter if they needed a medical certificate for sick leave. Around two-thirds of those polled said they would use virtual care to get a medical certificate, if physical access was difficult. When asked what circumstances would prompt them to use the virtual healthcare model, at least half of Australian adults cited the need to access a prescription quickly, an inability to leave home, and feeling too ill to visit their GP.
All in all, moving to a virtual care model will help GPs deal with increased patient numbers and doctor shortages and allow Australians to continue receiving high-quality care that meets their needs. It enables a more streamlined approach to patient care by providing patients with greater access and more touchpoints. Previously unavailable in general practice, multidisciplinary and preventive care systems can be more easily accessed with the new healthcare model.
The Doctor’s Point of View: “We Want Collaboration and Flexibility”
The digital-first care model provides access to multidisciplinary and team-based care, allowing GPs to collaborate without having to be in the same place, which is especially beneficial for geographically dispersed locations.
One of the essential benefits of the virtual healthcare model is that it offers the variety and flexibility that the private sector has, allowing doctors to work from anywhere and anytime they want. Tech innovations empower Australian doctors while also reducing burnout and allowing them to reclaim a better work-life balance. The subsequent step will be to ensure that nursing, practice management, and medical support services are properly integrated into virtual healthcare to evolve into proper practices.
However, if the virtual healthcare trend continues, general practitioners will require training, compensation, and support to ensure virtual exam rooms are staffed with experienced, trained, and knowledgeable primary care physicians.
How Australian Healthcare Employers May Help Facilitate the Virtual Care Model
First, in order to strengthen the virtual healthcare system and overcome the GP talent shortage, the Australian Government and healthcare employers must work towards improving processes and expanding the scope of potential hires. They must focus on creating competitive salaries, incentive-based compensation structures, and flexible working arrangements that will encourage medical professionals to join their teams.
Second, investing in professional development opportunities and helping them upskill for the virtual care system will help GPs stay engaged for longer periods. One way to do this is by providing mentorship programs, thus enabling new hires to transition into their roles and learn from experienced professionals easily. They must be provided adequate training to adapt to the future workforce by focusing more on patient management outside the conventional healthcare setting. This includes remote monitoring, remote medical care, and case management.
This shift is foundational and has the greatest potential to benefit future preparations for a ready and capable Australian health workforce.
The Final Note
With the new normal, technology has taken precedence over medical interaction and advice as the pandemic forced the healthcare system to adopt virtual healthcare practices rapidly. Australian healthcare requires innovation, and virtual care is one robust modernization that does not necessitate major changes to the existing systems. It does not replace traditional models of care; rather, it augments, improves, and supplements them.
However, tackling the looming GP shortage problem will require collaboration between government agencies, educational institutions, private employers, and individuals across Australia to create an equitable healthcare system that meets everyone’s needs. Investing in education programs that encourage young people into general practice roles, providing incentives for GPs working in rural areas or underserved populations, and implementing innovative solutions ensure the accessibility to high-quality healthcare that the people of Australia deserve.
Employers should recognize necessary investments towards building a sustainable workforce pipeline within their businesses and Australia’s healthcare system, ultimately leading towards better patient outcomes across the country!