Northeast General Practice Services was founded by Kim Ling Ching and her business partner Dr Julian Fidge. Operating the South Wangaratta Medical Centre in Victoria, the practice now has more than 8,000 active patients on its books.

Ensuring practice sustainability

Over the years, it has become clearer to Kim that the solo general practitioner business model was no longer viable. For Kim, expanding the clinic’s expertise into speciality areas, like skin cancer medicine and chronic disease management, would ensure the business could achieve sustainable operations and growth.

“Having extra services and different health practitioners helps us grow the practice. Our doctors and nurses also thrive in a group environment instead of having one or two general practitioners working alone,” Kim says.

“A larger group of doctors allows for collaboration and team-based clinical support for patients. More experienced practitioners can mentor new doctors and cross-reference each other regarding speciality or subspecialty medical interests.”

According to Kim, as well as meeting demand from the community for new services, diversification has also been a reality due to the shortfall in Medicare support for traditional services.

“After the Medicare indexation freeze was finally lifted, funding has had to play catch up with the business needs of a practice which is yet to happen,” Kim says.

“That’s compounded by the impact of the pandemic and the cost of running the practice. With rent, wages, cost of consumables and everything increasing yearly, the gap between the Medicare rebate and cost the practice needs to absorb to provide a service is growing.”

Getting the billing balance right

Kim says in response to the operational and financial realities of the system, the practice has had to carefully consider its billing model.

For example, the practice has offered a mixed billing model since 2016, allowing for private and bulk billing, mostly for concession patients. However, there has been a change in the volume of bulk billed services.

“Unfortunately, to a certain extent, we have to shift to reduce bulk billing. However, the gap fee impacts patients, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We make sure, through mixed billing services, that we can continue to provide accessible and affordable care to vulnerable groups.”

Aside from billing, Kim believes clinics need to implement different strategies to ensure the sustainability of their services. Again, this includes diversifying the services the practices offer but also seeking out new market segments.

“We expanded services to include corporate health assessments. For example, conducting pre-employment health screening as a service can generate higher margins than other areas of the practice. We can then redirect that profit into lower margin or even loss-making areas that support the delivery of care to the community.”

Having the extra margins to offer competitive wages also helps attract and retain doctors and nurses, who Kim says can often be paid less in general practice than in other areas of the healthcare system.

Technology to enhance the experience

Northeast General Practice Services invests heavily in technology to deliver a better experience for staff, patients, and the practice.

“The practice already had a remote server system, allowing doctors to access the practice management system and clinical software from anywhere. That allowed doctors to work from home straight away, from day dot, when the pandemic hit and can accommodate the ongoing desire for flexible working.”

Kim says it’s also essential to use technology to help deliver patient services and streamline or automate back office and compliance functions.

“We utilise technology solutions that extract data to drive projects, or that can improve the quality of the clinics,” she says. “Digital solutions to help us better manage item numbers and service delivery models can ensure patients are well looked after and help doctors improve their billings.”

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