General practices (GPs) around the country are on the front line of Australia’s healthcare system. It’s where many patients have their primary interaction with healthcare professionals, and the latest GP Insights 2023 Report from CommBank Health reveals how GPs are coming under increasing pressure as patient numbers rebound in the wake of the pandemic.
Half of the practices surveyed expect to see more patients in the next 12 months, but only 18% have been able to increase their doctor numbers to deal with that. Staff shortages are widespread, with 72% of practices reporting that a lack of staff has affected their operating capacity and plans for growth.
The top challenge, however, is dealing with a rise in running costs, especially as Medicare1 schedule fees are not keeping pace with expenses. More than half (55%) of practices have reduced the proportion of patients they bulk bill to try to make their finances sustainable.
“This latest report arrives at a point where enhancing the experience of practices and patients has never been more critical,” says Albert Naffah, CEO CommBank Health. “The recovery in patient numbers following the height of the pandemic has stepped up as the cost and capacity to deliver care have come under immense pressure.”
GPs are using various methods to manage the pressures of rising patient numbers, higher costs and staff shortages. This includes investing in digital technology as a way to meet patients’ expectations while gaining operating efficiencies.
Make bookings and billing as easy as Uber2
Booking and billing are two areas where GPs can use digital technology to streamline their processes, says Naffah. These activities tie up administrative staff, so moving to an automated process frees them to focus on other important tasks.
Digital check-ins for patients are growing quickly, with 27% of GPs planning to introduce digital check-in services within the next two years, according to the report.
“We can make practitioners’ lives easier by removing some of the administration, but it will also deliver a much better experience for patients as well,” says Naffah.
Naffah equates this shift to automated bookings and billing to the taxi industry of a decade ago – and then comparing it with what we expect from Uber and other rideshares today.
He says rather than the current “three-card shuffle” of patients swiping multiple cards, multiple times, to bill with Medicare, it should be as simple as getting a notification on an app and clicking OK.
“It’s really an Uber experience that we want to bring to healthcare,” says Naffah. “And there’s no reason why we can’t do that – because the same people who have adopted Uber en masse are also using healthcare practices.”
Telehealth hits a roadblock
Telehealth appointments – healthcare consultations via video or phone call – ramped up rapidly during the pandemic lockdowns. Between March 2020 and July 2022 more than 118 million telehealth services were delivered to 18 million patients and more than 95,000 practitioners used telehealth services, according to government data.3
Two-thirds of GPs have already introduced telehealth consultations via video and 30% of patients report have had a virtual consultations over the past 12 months, the report found.
Telehealth consultations offer a number of benefits for patients and health practitioners:
- reducing the burden on surgeries and administrative staff
- providing doctors with more flexibility in how they organise their workload
- delivering healthcare services to regional and remote communities.
But post-lockdown, patients are returning to surgeries and the growth in telehealth has slowed. Naffah says it will take a co-ordinated effort to get it back on track.
“Nothing is ever going to be better than the face-to-face consultation in many instances, but that's not necessarily the case, for example, with getting a repeat script or maybe common antibiotic prescriptions,” he explains.
The potential for telehealth remains largely untapped – most consultations are still audio only over the phone – but it opens up opportunities for additional services to go online, such as patient self-diagnostics and monitoring, as well as integration with back-office systems.
“Our Healthy Options report, released last year, talked about the opportunity to better connect the patient journey and the need to invest in technology in order to enable that,” says Naffah.
“The key conclusion from that report is that it's not a problem that's going to be solved only by doctors, or only by patients, or only by government or by private health insurance – it needs everyone to be working together.”
Why a business plan is vital
The pandemic saw GPs prioritise investment in digital technology, mainly driven by the shift to telehealth service delivery. While investment is expected to level off, the report found that 57% of practices plan to slightly lift their technology budgets next year, while 9% will increase spending significantly.
Looking further ahead, Naffah believes the targeted application of technology can help address some of the systemic issues with Australia’s health system, such as having an ageing population which is living longer.
“We have these structural issues that are contributing to people needing to see doctors and medical specialists more and more. So we need to be thinking of different ways to address this challenge. And technology obviously is going to play a role,” he says.
As GP practices increase their technology spend, Naffah says they should approach that investment the same way as any other business owner – by having a business plan and a technology pathway.
“Having a business plan is absolutely the first step we would encourage every medical practice owner to do,” he says.
“The core of any successful practice is that ongoing investment in technology. But these things are not necessarily cheap and they are lumpy expenses, so having a plan on how you're going to manage that investment is important.”