General practice patient numbers leap by more than a million

Jolyon Attwooll

2/12/2022 4:07:23 PM

The number of people using GP services has climbed substantially since the pandemic began, according to new AIHW statistics.

GP consultation
The number of patients recording at least one GP attendance within 12 months has risen steeply.

More than a million more Australians attended a GP in the past 12 months compared to the year before the pandemic, new figures show.
According to a report released this week by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), nine in 10 Australians received at least one Medicare-subsidised GP service in 2021–22.
That represents a total of 23,099,650 patients in those 12 months. In 2018–19, 21,939,649 patients had at least one general practice-based Medicare service, meaning the number of people attending a GP has increased by around 1.16 million in the most recent timeframe.
The RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said the AIHW report reflects the experience of GPs working around the country.
‘These figures show what we as GPs all know from our work every day – that the communities we serve need general practice more than ever,’ she told newsGP.
‘It also underlines again how crucial it is that primary care gets the attention it so desperately needs.’
The AIHW puts the total number of Australians who had at least one Medicare-subsidised GP service in 2021–22 at 89.9% of the population, compared to the previous 12 months when the same statistic stood at 85%
That number was down on previous years, with lockdowns in 2020–21 likely to have had a significant impact on overall attendances.
However, the most recent 12 months is also higher than both 2019–20 and 2018–19, the last full financial year before the pandemic struck, when GP attendances stood at 87.4% and 87.8% respectively.
‘The numbers paint a clear picture,’ Dr Higgins said.
‘At a time when there is a worrying number of GPs retiring or about to leave the profession, as well as fewer medical graduates looking at general practice as a career, there are more Australians relying on their GPs – and that includes before the COVID era. 
‘The message is simple.
‘There is no time to waste with Medicare reform to ensure general practice continues as a cornerstone of our health system and allows our communities to get the preventive, patient-centred care they deserve.’
In the most recent Health of the Nation report, a quarter of GPs said they planned to retire in the next five years.
There has also been a sharp increase in the total number of general practice Medicare services given compared to before the pandemic, with 188,694,030 recorded in 2021–22 compared to 157,855,815 in 2018–19, an increase of almost 20%.
On a more granular level, the new AIHW data gives a snapshot of all the 31 Primary Health Networks (PHNs) in Australia, and shows significant variation across different areas.

In the most recent financial year, Western Queensland and Northern Territory PHN regions had the lowest rate of GP attendances overall, with 77.1% and 77.8% of their respective populations receiving a Medicare service linked to general practice.
The highest rate was found in the Nepean Blue Mountain PHN in NSW, where 97.8% of all residents attended a GP in the timeframe.
The AIHW analysis also indicates that, while overall patient percentages are roughly comparable across metropolitan and regional areas, there is a significant disparity in the number of services used.
In regional areas, there was an average of 696 services used per 100 people, compared to 755 in cities.
The AIHW says the trend is similar for both men and women.
Using age-standardised measures, South-Western Sydney PHN registered the most services on average.
The use of GP-based Medicare services also far exceeded levels among allied health and specialist services, where the percentage of patients ranged from 14–42% depending on the area, according to the report.
The Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, which first met in July and includes the RACGP as well as representatives from several other healthcare organisations, is due to issue a report by the end of the year.
The authors of the AIHW report note some limitations, including that MBS eligibility amendments and new item numbers may affect the ability to make comparisons over time.
They also state that item numbers could be under-represented, giving the example of standard level B being billed instead of a health-specific item.
The full data on Medicare-subsidised services from 2021–22 is available on the AIHW website.
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Dr Benjamin Weiss   3/12/2022 6:54:50 AM

An interesting statistic would be how many new GPs registered during 2022 and how many have retired this year.This will give you and idea how many extra GP services each GP had to carry out in 2022.

Dr Megan Elizabeth Elliott-Rudder   3/12/2022 12:51:31 PM

MBS research needs to be more specific. GPs have put a lot more people through the doors. But this interpretation would be more useful if it specified whether COVID vaccination item numbers were included, and if so, whether a different analysis could show that GPs had less time available for regular consultations.

Dr Martin James Kelly   3/12/2022 1:00:03 PM

Went to my dentist on Friday $305 for 25 minutes work. And ver happy with the service. Then involved in a complex management of a child in a remote community by TH, which continued on and off for nearly two hours. Medicare rebate about $125 - just to give me a reality check about how much my time and expertise is valued by the government. No wonder young doctors don’t think it’s worth going into general practice. If I’d had to pay a plumber for a call out over the weekend I would be really unhappy.

Dr Maureen Anne Fitzsimon   3/12/2022 2:42:44 PM

What has been the effect of Telehealth consultations? Like many other GPs, I did countless unpaid telephone consultations every day,before these items became available. As I was booked out for many weeks ahead, there was no option to see people in person when a matter could be dealt with on the phone. Doing endless consultations at my expense, was yet another example of Medicare rorting GPs.