Primary care boost key to better pandemic response: Report

Jolyon Attwooll

8/01/2024 3:15:52 PM

The Grattan Institute has set out why it believes improved funding would reduce the higher toll on the most vulnerable communities.

Woman being vaccinated
COVID-19 vaccination strategies have been queried by the Grattan Institute and the RACGP.

Stark inequalities exposed by COVID-19 would be best addressed by investing in primary care to help tackle chronic disease, according to the Grattan Institute.

In its submission to the Commonwealth Government COVID-19 Response Inquiry, the public policy thinktank highlights how disadvantaged Australians were most vulnerable in the pandemic, with lower vaccination rates, fewer antiviral treatments, and higher risk of death.
‘Australia should be doing much more to close health gaps,’ the report authors write.
‘This will not only improve the lives of many Australians, but make Australia more resilient to future pandemics, and stop future pandemics making inequities worse.’
They argue that primary care investment, including in general practice, ‘is the best way to manage chronic disease and keep pressure off the rest of the health system’.
‘While some important Federal Government reforms have begun, more work is needed to ensure disadvantaged Australians aren’t left behind,’ they state.
‘The Federal Government must ensure that GPs are resourced properly to better treat and manage complex diseases, particularly in disadvantaged communities.’
The reports also suggests that patients in rural areas will need extra support and coordination between different levels of government to ensure better access.
‘These reforms would make it easier for Australians, particularly disadvantaged Australians, to avoid and manage chronic health conditions, making them less vulnerable in a future pandemic.’
As part of its submission, the Grattan Institute also called for a vaccine equity strategy supported by a new national vaccination agreement.
‘If Australia builds a fairer vaccination program now, it would not only help improve access to COVID vaccinations in the short- and medium-term, but enable governments to effectively ramp up systems when a new pandemic emerges,’ the authors write.
The report states that high-risk patients who are not proficient in English were nearly 60% less likely to have had a recent vaccination against COVID going into winter 2023 compared to high-risk patients overall.
Moreover, those in very remote areas were 35% less likely to have had a recent COVID vaccine compared to patients in inner-regional areas.
In its own submission to the inquiry, the RACGP also highlighted shortcomings in the approach for getting vaccines to people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.
‘Strategies for distributing vaccines to CALD and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, which require additional [or] different communication styles to disseminate important health information, were not considered until it became apparent the existing strategies were not working,’ the college submission states.  
‘For example, vaccine uptake in these groups is still lower than national uptake more broadly.
‘Engagement of appropriate local leadership should have been a strategy from the beginning and has since proven effective in these communities.’
The RACGP also said GPs should be recognised as ‘frontline’ responders in any future pandemic response.
‘The role of GPs as frontline health providers must be formally recognised in pandemic preparation, response and recovery,’ its submission read.  
‘While we recognise different levels of government have different roles and responsibilities relating to pandemic response, this hampered efforts to embed GPs in planning processes and support them in their work.
‘As private businesses that don’t fall under the responsibility of state governments, state governments and agencies failed to incorporate and consider GPs.
‘Hospital staff and emergency services were prioritised, and GPs were not considered frontline workers, which was insulting and affected the morale of the profession.’
Among other recommendations, the RACGP also urged for a more coordinated approach to distributing protective personal equipment (PPE), and for reduced complexity in MBS vaccine items.
The inquiry was announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in September last year and is being overseen by Robyn Kruk, a senior public servant who wrote a recent report into health workforce settings, as well as prominent Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett, and the health economist, Dr Angela Jackson.
A final report with recommendations is due to be sent to Government by the end of September 2024.
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