GPs crucial to fighting future pandemics: RACGP

Michelle Wisbey

21/12/2023 11:33:11 AM

The college is calling for recognition of GPs as frontline workers if a pandemic hits, while pleading with leaders to ‘cut us some slack’.

Doctor in a COVID mask consulting with a patient.
The RACGP says changes are needed to ensure Australia’s most vulnerable populations have access to quality care during a pandemic.

GPs should play a central role in the planning and rollout of any future pandemic response, according to a new submission from the RACGP.
In its feedback to the Federal Government’s COVID-19 Response Inquiry, the college says the role of GPs as frontline health providers must be formally recognised in pandemic situations in order for doctors to provide best practice patient care.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the independent inquiry earlier this year, to ‘identify lessons learned to improve Australia’s preparedness for future pandemics’.
A panel of experts will now spend the next year examining the Federal Government’s COVID-19 decisions, including vaccination rollouts, treatments, and medical supplies.
Formal recognition was one of five key changes the RACGP called for in its submission, which also recommends:

  • processes to ensure consistency across federal, state and territory governments to ensure GPs are included in decision making
  • GPs to have priority access to equipment and resources, including protective personal equipment (PPE) and vaccines 
  • GPs to be provided with reassurance any Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) adjustments will not result in compliance investigations
  • messaging campaigns to provide patients access to evidence-based information.
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said anything less than this will compromise GPs’ ability to keep communities safe.
‘Unfortunately, GPs are not sufficiently embedded in the planning process, and we are, to some extent, treated as an afterthought,’ she said.
‘To change this, we need cross-jurisdictional and inter-agency collaboration, and for GPs and practice teams to be always front of mind.’
The submission said access and supply of PPE was an ongoing issue throughout the pandemic response, with GPs expected to source private supplies, often at unreasonable prices.
It said GPs reported feeling unsafe at work due to a shortfall of PPE and were frustrated at the lack of communication regarding supply and distribution from national stockpiles.
Additionally, the submission states misinformation about COVID-19 was ‘rife during the pandemic and a mistrust of science, medicine and medical practitioners was a common element of much of the misinformation shared’.
The college is now calling on the Commonwealth to fund a public awareness campaign to educate Australians about the importance of immunisations and heeding the advice of medical experts.
Dr Higgins said at several times throughout 2020 and 2021 that GPs were not adequately resourced and felt they had ‘one arm tied behind our backs’.
She said access and supply of PPE was an ‘ongoing headache’, and red tape prevented GPs from doing their jobs.
‘First, in early 2021, we were hit by a compliance campaign relating to new COVID-19 telehealth items, and then we were whacked with further compliance activity concerning COVID-19 vaccine administration,’ Dr Higgins said.
‘The fact sheet on the vaccine items was 27 pages long, and we were genuinely doing our best to understand the billing requirements and make sure we were claiming correctly.
‘Yet the Department didn’t seem to care about any of this, and instead of focusing on education and the development of accessible, easy-to-understand resources that are widely promoted, we were targeted for potential compliance breaches.’
The submission also calls for an overhaul of the mechanisms use to help Australia’s vulnerable populations during a pandemic, including people with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
It said funding and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was especially needed to deliver culturally appropriate preventive health activities and address social determinants of health.
Without this, the submission says entire populations will miss out on quality care.
Ultimately, Dr Higgins said in future, decision makers should ‘cut us some slack’, and focus on education rather than officious compliance.
‘Let’s learn from COVID-19 and make sure we are doing all we can to enhance public health knowledge,’ she said.
‘Misinformation about the virus and vaccine rollout, especially on social media, was a huge problem.
‘We consistently called for the Government to fill the information vacuum and boost public awareness campaign efforts, and this must be a priority for future public health events.
‘The college stands ready to work with government and apply the lessons learned from this pandemic to best protect our communities in the years ahead.’
The panel’s final report is due to be handed down in September 2024.
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A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   22/12/2023 9:26:49 PM

Of course GPs are key to fighting pandemics .
It is also GPs who are most likely to recognise Patient Zero as happened with one of the early cases of SARS in 2003
As an RACGP historian I am happy to say that RACGP has been very active in planning & preparation for pandemics since the 1990s.
A lot of material was prepared & disseminated as did the Divisions of General Practice.
The initial planning was for an outbreak of influenza similar to Spanish Flu & adapted for SARS.