Australians paying $41 to see a GP as emergency rooms bear the brunt

More than a third of all emergency department patients last year could have been treated outside a hospital, but Australians face delays seeing a general practitioner and fork out an average $41 each time despite telehealth measures driving up bulk-billing.

Almost a third of GP patients pay gap fees, and a third in need of an urgent appointment had to wait 24 hours or more in 2020-21, a Productivity Commission report on government-funded health services shows. Only 56 per cent were seen within four hours.

Millions of Australians are choosing to go to an emergency department for treatment instead of a GP.

Millions of Australians are choosing to go to an emergency department for treatment instead of a GP.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Emergency departments (ED) received an influx of patients with conditions that could have been treated outside the hospital. Out of 8.8 million emergency department visits nationally, “GP-like presentations” to hospitals hit 3.2 million in 2020-21, up 14 per cent from 2.8 million the previous year.

Australian College of Emergency Medicine past president Simon Judkins said many patients had no option but to present at their local emergency department because “their GPs are fully booked”, and some patients told the next available appointment was weeks away.

“We’re seeing a lot of patients whose care could have been accessed elsewhere, but the system is so stretched and under-resourced,” Dr Judkins said. “[ED] seems to be the only viable option, and it’s accessible 24/7.”

Dr Judkins said patients who could not afford to pay out of pocket for medical care were turning up to emergency rooms after deteriorating, giving the example of a patient with back pain and who had not been able to see a specialist or get an MRI.

“Sometimes we just have to give them the pain relief and patch them up,” he said.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) president Karen Price said some GP practices were turning away patients who had respiratory symptoms because they did not have adequate personal protective equipment such as high-grade masks.

“We are in a pandemic,” she said.

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