Canberra has a GP problem, but there could be some simple solutions

Updated February 03, 2019 13:17:17

A Productivity Commission report released this week revealed Canberra had the lowest number of doctors per 100,000 people across the country.

It also found the cost of seeing a doctor was higher than ever, and 8 per cent of Canberrans avoided making an appointment altogether because of the increased expense.

But some Canberrans have found some ways to get around the expensive GP shortage.

13SICK

Mother-of-two Amy Steenbergen, who lives in Canberra’s north, has used the National Home Doctor Service twice.

The network, Australia’s largest for home-visiting doctors, bulk-bills and is accessed through calling 13SICK or downloading the app.

The service is available across Canberra and all 13SICK doctors are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

“They just ask you some questions of what you’re experiencing, you click through your symptoms, and they tell you if the doctor will come or if you should go the hospital,” Ms Steenbergen said.

The service sends a text saying how long the wait for a doctor will be, and a follow-up text when the doctor is on their way.

While the service claimed patients could wait up to four hours to have a doctor visit them, Mrs Steenbergen said she had only waited 30 minutes.

“Both times we used the service it’s been really good,” Mrs Steenbergen said.

“We were sick and getting worse, but knew we didn’t need to go to the hospital. I knew I needed something to stop us from being sick, especially having a kid.”

National Health Co-op

In the wake of the Productivity Commission report, ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris drew attention to the National Health Co-op as a positive player in the healthcare space.

Formed in 2010 in response to a lack of doctors in north-west Canberra, the NHC is a “not-for-profit, member-owned co-operative that provides medical and healthcare services”.

Members pay a monthly fee of $10 (children under 18 are free under their parent or guardian’s membership) in exchange for unlimited access to bulk-billed doctors of their choice at any NHC practice in Australia.

The Co-op has 10 locations across the ACT, and is staffed by over 50 doctors and health professionals.

“What we have seen in the ACT, which is quite innovative and has led the country, is the Health Co-operative model,” Ms Fitzharris said.

“We have supported the National Health Co-op to establish their practices here, and they were one of the recipients from the bulk-billing grant round last year.

“They’re just about to open a major practice on the ANU campus.”

To use the service, members can book online or over the phone.

As well as standard GP appointments, Canberrans can also access dietitians, physiotherapists, and up to 10 bulk-billed psychologist sessions per year. Some services, such as vaccinations, fall outside of bulk-billed eligibility, but are provided at lower rates.

Bulk-billing medical centres

Despite the Productivity Commission report revealing it was harder to see a bulk-billed GP in Canberra than anywhere else in the country, they do still exist.

There are a number of bulk-billing practices across Canberra, from Gungahlin to Tuggeranong — you just need to know where to find them.

Paige Mewton, who works in the health sector and is in direct contact with people who cannot afford to see a GP, believes there is a knowledge gap when it comes to bulk-billing services.

She used to use the only medical centre she knew about that bulk-billed, but found the service too slow.

“The waiting time was hectic, I used to have to make a day of it and take my laptop along with me,” she said.

Ms Mewton has since found a new centre, which also uses bulk-billing, where the waiting times are much shorter.

“It’s a struggle for people who aren’t local to Canberra to find these services, or for people who don’t have family here,” she said.

“Word-of-mouth is really all there is to find out which practices are bulk-billed and which aren’t. There’s a gap in knowledge and in communication.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated ACT residents spend $357 per year on visiting a GP. That number actually refers to Government expenditure for the average Australian.

Topics: doctors-and-medical-professionals, health, healthcare-facilities, canberra-2600, act

First posted February 03, 2019 08:21:20

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