In overcoming significant disadvantage, it is the capacity of the general practice workforce that will provide the biggest impacts in realising improved health outcomes over time. General practice is by far the most efficient and cost-effective part of the healthcare system. GPs are often relied on the most, particularly by those most in need and with complex and chronic conditions.
General practice is already an efficient part of the healthcare system. GPs also have a very large remit. In any given year, almost all Australians – or 85 per cent – will visit a GP at least once. Yet government expenditure on general practice is relatively low at around $6.8 billion, under 5 per cent, of total recurrent health spending.[i] When compared to the significant cost to the sector for hospital services - expenditure on public hospital services is at around $61 billion – general practice offers value for money.[ii]
There is clear global evidence that health systems with strong primary care will secure long term efficiencies. Benefits from prioritised investment include achieving lower rates of hospitalisation, fewer health inequities and better health outcomes including lower mortality. The findings captured by Starfield for one make a convincing case for primary care investment and are not new, but so do so many studies that have followed it.[iii] [iv]
A broader population health policy framework that recognises the role of primary care and general practitioners in addressing health disparities makes really good policy sense. But how do we convince our policy makers – firmly fixed within their short-term electoral cycles and need for quick wins - that a strong investment now will provide real and significant returns for a healthier future?
It’s clear that policy makers are not short on evidence around the benefits of prioritising these areas. These are critical funding decisions that impact quality, access, and coordination of health service delivery.
There is significant unmet need with access to primary health care still one of the main barriers to achieving equitable health outcomes. This is the case for many disadvantaged Australians and certainly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. National studies have shown that health outcomes improve with improved access to GPs in areas with relatively high predicted need for primary health care.[v] But we are not seeing anywhere near the level of investment needed to make the shifts required in supporting those most in need.
Embedding more preventative health interventions in the primary health care setting also needs focus. Primary care and preventative health go hand in hand. A rising disease burden requires a stronger emphasis on preventative health and GPs are key in terms of delivery. We clearly need to be prioritising both areas and with the level of investment warranted to secure strong health outcomes. We need investment in both prevention and primary care with recognition through funding of the important role general practice has in delivering both aims.
While preventative health requires a whole of community focus and an effort from each and every one of us, much of the service responsibility again falls to general practice. The GP has the lead role in ensuring their patients remain healthy over a lifetime and preventing illness, identifying risk and offering early intervention is already a large part of what we do.
I know firsthand that our patients most certainly value general practice and understand well the need for prevention and for real investments around that beyond just a health message. Research Australia’s annual Health and Medical Research public opinion poll ranked preventative health as one of the nation’s key health priorities. More than 75 per cent of Australians ranked preventative health as a key priority in 2016.
In determining health priorities, that role now falls to the Primary Health Networks and their focus in six priority areas: Aboriginal health, aged care, e-health, mental health, population health and health workforce.[vi] However, we know that issues around equity and social determinants of health is key to shifting entrenched disadvantage. The much broader set of objectives in our National Primary Care Framework (April 2013) should be revisited. Clear aims to drive our funding decisions which included a focus on addressing inequity in keeping all Australians healthy, preventing illness as well as reduce unnecessary hospital presentations and making improvements in the management of complex and chronic conditions.[vii]
To drive the level of change general practice needs to be better resourced. Investment needs to prioritise general practice and build upon existing services and arrangements. An investment which will lead to improved health outcomes, better management of chronic disease, a stronger focus on prevention and lower rates of unnecessary hospital admissions. A strong investment in general practice is what is needed to secure a healthier future for all Australians. The lift of the freeze, albeit slowly, is welcomed, but this only puts us back where we were at in 2013 before it was introduced. Let’s get the full discussion back on track. Let’s pick up where we were at nearly a decade ago when we were on the cusp of significant reform in Australia. A reform which saw a priority on general practice and its role in prevention and primary care.
[i] Britt H, Miller GC, Henderson J, et al. General practice activity in Australia 2014–15. General practice series no. 38. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2015. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/13765
[ii] AIHW 2017. Australia's hospitals at a glance 2015–16. Health services series no 77. Cat. no. HSE 189. Canberra: AIHW.
[iii] Starfield, B., Shi, L. and Macinko, J. (2005), Contribution of Primary Care to Health Systems and Health. Milbank Quarterly, 83: 457–502. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2005.00409.x
[iv] Harris MF, Harris E. Facing the challenges: general practice in 2020. Med J Aust 2006; 185: 122-124.
[v] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2014. Access to primary health care relative to need for Indigenous Australians. Cat. no. IHW 128. Canberra: AIHW.http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129547987
[vi] The Department of Health. Primary Health Networks (PHNs). Available from http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/PHN-Background
[vii]Commonwealth ofAustralia.NationalPrimaryHealthCareStrategicFramework.2013.Availableat: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/6084A04118674329CA257BF0001A349E/$File/NPHCframe.pdf
Broad skill depth is what makes general practice unique and so central to addressing patient need. An essential part of that skill mix and key to addressing an aging population with more complex health care needs are non-procedural advanced skills.
The development of specialist clinical interests by GPs has always been a key feature of general practice. These are often the skills needed to meet identified patient need and provide an effective way to address access constraints, particularly for rural areas.
It makes sense then that in order to provide training to match demand that we don’t over emphasise or value certain skills over others. It’s also important to value the workforce you have as well as prioritise policy to support the next generation of GPs. This is the case for both urban and rural GPs we need to provide more opportunities in those extended skills or advanced skill areas identified and prioritised by the profession.
This is particularly important for practising rural GPs who need flexible training options so that they can acquire new skills to address unmet service need. And in meeting this need this requires an equal focus on both non-procedural and procedural skill acquisition.
We need an equal focus on both recruitment and retention strategies which in turn means factoring into the policy design both learning stage and time in career. To achieve this, we need targeted strategies to support both the existing workforce and those at an earlier learning and career stage.
Funding not only needs to be prioritised for skill acquisition but also for maintenance. Skill certainty is also crucial so that the GP can utilise the skills they’ve acquired to support their community. The return on investment is substantial and means that patients get the services they need and deserve.
Research led by RACGP Rural in 2013 helped to clarify the extent of advanced skills used and needed by GPs in rural and remote Australia. Not surprisingly the number of advanced skills acquired and used across most areas increased with rurality.
Mental health came out in front as the most commonly practised advanced skill in the study, followed closely by emergency medicine and chronic disease management. Of those skills GPs would seek to acquire to meet a community need, emergency medicine was the most prevalent, but this was followed by palliative care, paediatrics, and mental health.
Skills in emergency medicine were expectedly prominent with approximately 60% of respondents indicating that emergency medicine was relevant in rural general practice. However, only 38.7% had acquired it and 33.6% were currently using it. More broadly though, of those who had acquired an advanced skill, most were continuing to use that skill which was most reassuring.
The most important policy points from the study had to be the high prevalence of non-procedural advance skills as well as the continued reliance on emergency medicine in addressing need. There would be no surprises here particularly for those rural GPs currently overstretched to keep providing emergency and in-patient services. But also to those struggling to meet an increasing need in palliative care, paediatrics and mental health which extend to psycho-geriatric skillsets.
The policy requirement extends beyond providing training opportunity with a need to address system constraints which act as deterrents to working outside of the practice setting. Increased training opportunities need to be delivered in a supportive framework which enables skill utilisation facilitating service continuity otherwise it’s like doing half the job.
Capturing service complexity and rewarding GPs working across settings or in targeted areas of need offers a service solution in these areas. Investment in these skill-specific solutions based on need with a focus on GP-led models of care offer real solutions for health service viability.
We need to focus on enhancing health system interfaces where those non-procedural advanced skills factor strongly. In managing demand at the interface between primary and acute health care settings or various stages of illness – in palliative care or those with multiple chronic conditions for example – requires much more focus and across the full multidisciplinary team.
We need clear referral pathways which promote continuity of care for patients moving in and out of primary and tertiary care. The type of coordinated care planning made possible by that initial skill investment to enable an expanded role, but which is then further invested in terms of ensuring continued skill use across settings to provide for the required continuity of care.
15 July 2017 Dr Ayman Shenouda
The Federal Government’s $54.4 million investment to create 26 regional training hub sites nationally sees yet another significant rural health reform realised. Providing a more seamless transition from undergraduate training into rural practice, I believe the hubs measure is one of the most important reforms since the establishment of the Rural Clinical Schools nationally in 2000.
Having this policy realised is also a proud moment for me knowing that RACGP Rural was at the forefront of this reform having developed rural medical training pathway options for the Commonwealth through a major study undertaken in 2013.
What we now have with this policy is the level of integration we called for with the hubs being our highest ask. It’s also clear that other aspects of the full pipeline investment were informed by this study, which was one of the largest member-led rural consultations ever undertaken. Collectively these initiatives represent a significant rural training investment and it’s a great achievement for the sector.
It’s a substantial package, the three-part integrated rural pipeline package provides just short of $94 million over four years with the regional training hubs forming a key policy component. It also includes a rural junior doctor innovation fund and further investment to expand the rural specialist training program. Three new University Departments of Rural Health have also been committed for strategic sites across WA, NSW, and Queensland.
We’re also seeing some policy shifts here which are significant. Particularly in those key areas where we’ve been calling for change in order to address the policy gaps which impede integration. These are those junctions which occur from student to intern and intern to registrar which offer real opportunity in terms of being critical rural commitment points.
Firstly, in this policy, we see a clear focus on embedding more primary care earlier into the training. A new strategy to provide more internships that include rotations in general practice addresses a really significant problem where the lack of exposure to rural practice at this critical time impacts our recruitment goals. Factoring rural primary care rotations for rurally based first-year interns ensures this exposure across multiple settings. It doesn’t minimise the required hospital exposure but ensures essential exposure to community-based rural general practice.
While the early linkage of intern positions with specialist training positions is also evident through providing up to 100 new rural training places. We need to ensure our next generation of rural doctors are nurtured and supported once captured. This investment will go a long way towards supporting that aim by ensuring there is the capacity to provide high-quality rural placements.
We know there is a link between where a student ends up and where they completed their post-graduate studies. But even with the strongest rural interest and the best intentions, not everyone is suited and it takes a substantial personal commitment to make it work and stay.
We now have more capacity through this pipeline initiative to get those supportive elements right in order to provide a stable learning environment to equip trainees with the skillset they will need. Even more importantly it helps to ensure support can be sustained long enough to provide trainees with the skills and confidence required which makes staying much more likely.
The hubs provide for the right set of supports that will help us capture for rural the increasing domestic graduates coming through. It enables the university-hospital-community partnerships we need to set the right conditions to encourage more doctors to practise in rural areas.
This model facilitates a level of integration that will allow adequate clinical exposure in a rural area across all training stages. Most of all it provides a way to maintain a link to a specific rural community and to facilitate longer terms in rural areas.
What also needs to be emphasised here is a program of complete immersion. The step beyond rural exposure and a commitment towards longer placements. Community connectedness can only be achieved through longer placements in the same community throughout the full training continuum.
More cohesive and tailored training options will result. A more varied training experience will be able to occur, one which is appropriate to the learning stage but also flexible enough to be in line with community health needs.
Longer placements with multiple levels of learning are more effective allowing for the required immersion. It connects the trainee to the key players in the community, developing a network and connection to community through mentorship. Importantly they learn the value of rural general practice on their way through.
Policy success will, of course, be determined by improvements in the rural retention rate over time but I have no doubt the pipeline investment will work to build the right supports to make rural training a much more viable option.
These measures provide for the supportive and coordination factors as well as some much-needed infrastructure to make rural training work. It helps to formalise the networks needed to provide a pathway continuum for medical education and training from medical school to rural practice. All this combined provides a comprehensive policy solution which will translate into rural recruitment success and workforce retention over time.
Further reading: RACGP Rural developed a Position Statement to support policy implementation of the Regional Training Hubs.
The passing of legislation during the last sitting days in June to establish a new National Rural Health Commissioner is a significant step forward toward achieving a more equitable healthcare service nationally.
A new champion for rural patients, the role offers a new opportunity to ensure our collective voice is heard bringing to focus the important work we do. Through this key role, rural patients finally get the focus they deserve and we know that lasting change will require a broad policy lens encompassing all disciplines.
Those working in rural Australia know that it takes a dedicated team and an enduring local commitment to tackling the many challenges in delivering regional, rural and remote healthcare.
A focus on the full multidisciplinary team is key to providing more integrated and improved patient-care strategies. Strategies which work to address access constraints in the context of diminished rural resources require supportive policy to enable integration. It is in developing these service solutions, through policy advancement, to support viable rural models of care that we can work together to address disparities.
One of the first tasks for the new Commissioner will be to work with stakeholders to develop a National Rural Generalist Pathway. In maximising workforce outcomes, the ‘generalist’ role has long been the basis of rural medical practice enabling strong patient reach across settings to address access constraints.
It is clear that rural GPs in utilising their broad scope to provide services across the continuum of care in a range of settings have always offered, and remain, a key solution to addressing rural patient need. But we are not working alone and this same level of focus is warranted across all disciplines to work to the level of service integration required.
It’s reassuring that a much broader remit is envisaged by Dr Gillespie for the new Commissioner role. We all understand that addressing workforce and services issues to provide more effective, comprehensive healthcare is much broader than medicine.
A focus encompassing nursing, dental health, Indigenous health, mental health, midwifery and allied health alongside medicine is required. The patient must also be given a strong voice and reaching out to the health consumer through collaborative community-led engagement will be important.
To realise strong reform, a needs-based approach which can allow for flexibility is required. But it’s a hard sell. A community-led model or approach doesn’t always fit current funding models and our system does not always allow for the required integration.
It is by working through the service mix required, both private and public, which are specific to local need and achievable against available resources, that communities can find the solutions they need. Removing barriers to enable multidisciplinary healthcare teams to deliver comprehensive patient care across rural settings is key to making this work.
How to address increasing local demand for palliative care services, for example, needs a significant local commitment and many disciplines to make this happen. Working through to address poor service integration such as fragmentation which can sometimes occur due to policy barriers which limit the participation of allied health in aged and community care is another key example.
We know what’s needed and what works well in rural. We’ve had years of review and it’s time to implement. Lasting change can only be realised through enabling more community-initiated solutions, adding flexibility to enable service integration.
Finding local solutions in addressing need takes local leadership and time for critical planning which often needs to occur outside of practice hours. Support for this type of action can and will lead to improved skill utilisation and solutions which can work.
It really takes a whole community - involvement by all sectors of the health community – to drive this level of change.
In my own town of Wagga Wagga we certainly strive toward this level of engagement but in implementing new solutions our collective voice is not always loud enough. There is renewed hope that the new National Rural Health Commissioner can help us raise the volume enough for our community-led action to lead to change.
A big part of securing the next generation of rural GPs is around ensuring there remains a positive focus on general practice.
Rural practice is challenging which in turn makes it very rewarding, enabling you to develop a breadth of skills to build resilience in addressing need. Providing that insight for future doctors in a supportive way during those early learning years is so vitally important.
Sitting with a registrar recently, I was surprised to learn that he considered himself a rural generalist, and not a rural GP. This is despite the fact that he was training to a curriculum which is general practice: the endpoint in training for a rural generalist is of course a general practice Fellowship.
Let’s be very clear: rural generalists are rural GPs.
General practitioners are generalists by definition. The term ‘rural generalist’ describes a rural general practitioner working to the full scope of their practice with skill sets that are informed by the needs of the community they serve. These skill sets may encompass both advanced procedural and non-procedural skills working across primary and secondary care contexts with an emphasis on emergency medicine.
It’s about ensuring the right skill mix against demand.
The Federal Assistant Minister for Health, Dr David Gillespie MP, certainly knows this requirement well and his own definition is fitting: “A rural generalist is a doctor who’s trained as a general practitioner but has extra skills so that they can operate in a hospital setting as well as a community setting. That involves not just being a jack of all trades, but being a well-qualified doctor who can cope with the extra problems, clinical, public health, and hospital skills that you need to look after a regional town.”
It is the context that matters most and is key to getting health rural workforce policy right. The general (core) and advanced (specific) skills required in addressing patient need depend on the health needs and context of the community.
That is why it is important we align training investment to service need. In developing a rural generalist pathway nationally, this, therefore, must also be broad. We need a national pathway that equips general practitioners with a full range of competencies enabling them to deliver patient care closer to home in the primary and secondary care contexts.
We know that developing skills around the ongoing care considerations are the areas that best serve the community. We also know that dedicated and clear pathways for rural GPs to acquire advanced skills and utilise them in a way that is valued and recognised are important workforce factors.
Supportive strategies like these are vital in attracting and retaining a skilled rural workforce that is responsive to need. Most of all it’s about valuing the contribution to the healthcare system of quality general practice and its essential and enduring role in supporting rural communities.
 Gillespie transcript. 29 March 2017. RDAA Poli Breakfast. Dr David Gillespie MP Federal Assistant Minister for Health. Canberra.