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  • Leading GP fears for profession's future

    Author: AAP

General practice will cease to exist unless there's a drastic overhaul of frontline medical services, the new head of Australia's peak body for GPs warns.

Incoming Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Nicole Higgins says she will spend her next two years advocating for dramatic change, with the organisation's 40,000 members "struggling" due to diminished funding and workforce shortages.

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"It's not going to exist," Dr Higgins told AAP.

"It's dire. I'm really worried about what's going to happen to general practice."

The Mackay-based clinician has first hand experience of what she calls the GP crisis and says she is currently facing "very challenging decisions" about cutting appointment times so her practice of five years, which employs nine doctors, can remain viable.

"As soon as you move past the eastern seaboard, there's practices just closing left right and centre and that's devastating for communities," she said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dr Higgins says she's concerned that most politicians seem to have "very low levels of literacy around health systems and general practice".

The voices of patients, particularly those in marginal outer metro electorates, will therefore be key to keeping up the pressure on vital issues such as access to services and waiting times that could otherwise fall off the radar.

"It's mobilising our patients and our voters to actually now push back and tell MPs this is really affecting our community," she said.

The Australian Medical Association predicts a nation-wide shortfall of about 10,600 GPs within 10 years.

Right now there's a shortage of about 8000 nurses across the country and while the extent of a similar scarcity within allied health is not known, unions estimate it to also be in thousands.

At the same time, Dr Higgins says she is determined to push back against efforts to expand the roles of other health professionals which have traditionally fallen to general practitioners.

Take that to mean increased workloads for nurses, and trials in Queensland and Victoria allowing pharmacists to prescribe antibiotics and fill scripts for the contraceptive pill.

"It's the whole sector that's in difficulty and we just can't keep plugging round holes with square plugs," she said.

In recent years, Australia has produced about 4000 medical graduates but less than one in six have or are likely to pursue general practice as a specialty.

"General practice is undervalued, it's underfunded," Dr Higgins said.

"Graduates are not wanting to come into GP."

GP funding increases are less than two per cent each year. It's a figure she says is nowhere near enough and something she intends to address by advocating for increased incentives for bulk billing and longer consultations.

She also wants an end to "double dipping" in hospitals, a practice whereby outpatient clinics claim money intended for general practice through the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

Elsewhere, and with over half the RACGP's members having done their primary degree overseas, Dr Higgins believes more must be done to slash the red tape forcing some already-qualified international doctors to fork out up to $40,000 for six years of additional training.

More generally, she says her early discussions with the federal government and opposition have gone well. It's something she is keen to maintain transparency around but she sees her role as being about more than raising issues and making public appearances.

"It's making sure you're doing everything behind the scenes to bring the funders, the politicians, the decision makers to the table and then to also be informing members," she said.

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