Labor’s urgent care clinics welcome but ‘will not fix hospital crisis’April 13, 2022
Health experts have welcomed Labor’s pledge to trial bulk-billed Medicare urgent care clinics, but warn they will not empty the nation’s crowded hospital emergency rooms.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese on Wednesday morning unveiled his $135 million plan to trial the clinics over four years at 50 GP clinics and community health centres across Australia, as a measure promising to take the pressure off hospital emergency departments.
Albanese has announced a plan to trial bulk billed Medicare urgent care clinics.Credit:SMH
“These clinics are a key part of Labor’s plan to strengthen Medicare,” Albanese said.
Under the plan, patients with sprains and broken bones, insect bites, minor cuts and wounds, burns, ear and eye problems would receive bulk-billed care from a doctor or nurse, 7 days a week from 8am to 10pm.
Australian College of Emergency Medicine past president Dr Simon Judkins said while there was “no doubt that there’s a need to have more accessible health care”, including after hours, Labor’s plan did not address “the biggest issue, which is hospital system capacity.”
“Hospitals are full of patients who could be in other parts of the health system,” Judkins told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“There are people sitting in acute hospital beds waiting to get some sort of health care package so they can actually get out of the hospital system to community care … whether that be aged care, a rehab or respite bed, or access to NDIS packages.”
Economist and former health department secretary Dr Stephen Duckett said Labor’s announcement was welcome, but “we shouldn’t pretend that this will fix the entire problem”.
“There’s some evidence from New Zealand that urgent care clinics reduce emergency department presentations,” Duckett said.
“But the issue for EDs is, it’s not just these low acuity patients [who are taking up beds].”
Australian Medical Assocation vice president Dr Chris Moy said the Labor policy only “tinkers around the edges” of the problem of crowded hospital emergency rooms.
“Neither party has really put their money where their mouth is,” Moy told Melbourne radio station 3AW this morning.
“The main problem in hospitals is the fact that the hospitals are so full.”
Moy told the ABC the plan was “so far away from coherent policy in terms of really reforming health”.
“It’s kind of scratching the surface,” he said, describing the approach as an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff strategy”.
“We should really be supporting general practice now to prevent patients ending up in [emergency rooms], and also be there when patients actually do fall and break a leg … It’s a small tick for trying, we haven’t seen anything from the current government at the moment.”
Opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said the urgent care clinics aimed to treat patients after “minor emergencies, like when your kid falls off the skateboard or a deep cut that needs stitching and such like, where you can’t get in to see your GP right now”.
“Community health centres have been trying to make this sort of model work, but it simply can’t stack up financially under the existing Medicare system, under Medicare rebates for this sort of thing,” Butler told the ABC this morning.
“There are about 4 million presentations every single year to emergency departments, which doctors, nurses say could be quite adequately dealt with outside of a hospital setting.”
Butler said the model had been proven in New Zealand, which had “the lowest level of emergency department presentations in the developed world.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the AMA are calling for increased Medicare rebates for patients who need longer appointments with their GP, while states push for higher Commonwealth hospital funding.
“We urgently need to fix the cracks in our health system and ensure everyone can access the care they need,” RACGP President Professor Karen Price said.
With Marta Pascual Juanola
Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.
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