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Health of the Nation Report and state of General Practice

Yesterday the General practice: health of the nation report was released by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. I was invited to speak on a panel for the launch of the report at the National Press Club. With me on the panel was the President of the RACGP, Dr Nicole Higgins, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mr Mark Butler, and recently qualified GP Dr Emily Rushton. There was a general agreement, including from the minister, that general practice is the bedrock or the backbone of our health system. But the decade-long Medicare rebate freeze under the former coalition government has done extensive damage to general practice, which it will take years to recover from. The rebate freeze can be held up as an example of short-term thinking at its worst.

There was some good news in the Health of the nation report. GPs are spending more time with their patients on average, and nine out of 10 people are able to see their GP when they need to. It was also great to read that the vast majority of patients are feeling listened to and respected by their GPs. There was also a lot of not so good news, but it must be noted that the research was performed prior to the implementation of the tripling of the bulk-billing incentive payments. Some of this not so good news includes the fact that over 70 per cent of GPs are experiencing burnout, with three in 10 planning to leave the profession in the next five years and many more hoping to cut back on hours because of overwork. Also, four out of five practice owners had concerns about the viability of their practices, and only around 10 per cent of GPs aspired to owning their own practice. Concerning also, is the fact that the number of junior doctors choosing to move into specialist GP training practice is also declining. Many practice owners state that one of their main concerns about the viability of their practice is their inability to attract and retain GPs due to the serious workforce shortages. If we want to attract and retain more GPs in the profession, more needs to be done to value the vitally important work and role that GPs have in our health system. Currently, if a junior doctor wants to specialise in general practice, they must take quite a significant—in fact, a very significant—pay cut when compared to their hospital based colleagues. They also must give up paid parental leave and other protections. This is a serious barrier for many people entering general practice training schemes, as 60 per cent of the junior doctors entering are women and are often doing so at the time of life when they're considering starting a family or taking on a mortgage. From personal experience, I can attest that being a GP is an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding role. It is an enormous privilege and honour to be invited to support and advise people in some of the most significant times in their lives—both difficult and joyful. The GP-patient relationship is like no other, and I can't recommend the profession highly enough.

Investment in general practice and primary health care is an investment in better health outcomes. It's an investment in fewer hospital admissions, healthier lives and greater wellbeing for all Australians. It takes the stress off our hospitals and the stress off our ambulance services, and reduces elective surgery waitlists. And, of course, it's the most cost-effective form of healthcare provision. Investing in prevention, early diagnosis, early intervention and close management of chronic disease is by far the most cost-effective form of health spending, and saves billions in hospital spending. It was very positive to hear the minister say that at national meetings, such as the former Council of Australian Government meetings, premiers and first ministers are focusing their calls on greater funding to the primary healthcare network rather than just a focus on the hospital system, as has happened for so long. The health of our nation and the health of general practice go hand-in-hand, so I look forward to working with government to build a strong and vital general practice sector that serves the needs of all Australians, not just those who can afford it.