According to a recent report from the National Health Performance Authority (NHPA)*, Australians went to a General Practitioner (GP) 5.7 or more times in 2013-14.
The GP and Specialist Attendances and Expenditure 2013-14 report found that this varied greatly by location and availability of GPs. Those in Western Sydney saw a GP on average 7.3 times in 2013-14, while those in the Northern Territory saw a GP just 3.6 times on average.
|State||Average GP Visits in 2013-14|
Source: Statistics from NPHA, averages calculated by CANSTAR
The earlier 2012-13 report found that those who made the most visits to the doctor tended to be older and less wealthy, were more likely to have several long-term health conditions, and were more likely to see several different GPs. Just over 12.5% of Australians saw a GP at least twelve times in 2012–13, accounting for 41% of the $16 billion Medicare paid in out-of-hospital benefits.
How long do you wait to see your GP?
66% of Australians surveyed said they have a preferred GP whom they usually try to visit (NHPA, 2013-14). But sadly, 18% of survey respondents said they had waited longer than they felt acceptable to see a GP.
This varied greatly by location, from 15% in the Gold Coast saying they had waited too long, to 38% in the Western NSW area (NHPA, 2015 update).
Meanwhile, only 7.8% of survey respondents said they had waited longer than they felt acceptable to see a specialist (NHPA, 2013-14). Some specialists are covered by health insurance, so that patients can be seen under the private rather than public system, which usually drastically reduces the waiting times for patients:
Types of patients making a visit to the GP
The Healthy Communities: Frequent GP attenders and their use of health services in 2012–13 report divided the Australian population into groups based on the number of times people got a medical check-up from the GP in one year. These are:
Very high GP attenders (approx. 883,000 people)
Very high GP attenders had 20 or more visits per year to a GP, and saw 4.8 different GPs on average during the year.
Very high GP attenders received an average of $3,202 of non-hospital Medicare expenditure per person.
Very high GP attenders were highly likely to have at least 1 ongoing health condition. Over half (51.1%) of very high GP attenders claimed at least one GP chronic disease planning and management service.
In following up on this, the Healthy Communities: Use of emergency department and GP services in 2013-14 report found that while 51% of Australians had no health conditions, 26% had at least 1 condition; 12.7% had 2 conditions; and 10% had 3 or more health conditions.
Very high GP attenders also, predictably, accessed large numbers of other non-hospital Medicare-funded services. Most very high GP attenders had at least one pathology episode for blood tests or other diagnostic tests (93.0%), diagnostic imaging services such as MRIs (77.8%), or specialist attendance (68.4%).
Frequent GP attenders (approx. 2m people)
This group made 12–19 visits per year to a GP, and saw an average of 3.9 different GPs throughout the year.
They received an average of $3,202 of non-hospital Medicare expenditure per person. Just over one-third (35%) of frequent GP attenders reported being admitted to hospital in the twelve-month period.
Above average GP attenders: (approx. 5.2m people)
The largest single group, the above-average attenders made between 6-11 visits during the year to a GP, and saw an average of 3.2 different GPs.
They received an average of $993 of non-hospital Medicare expenditure per person. Approximately 18% of this group reported being admitted to hospital in the 12-month period.
Why a visit to the doctor should still be free
The Healthy Communities: Use of emergency department and GP services in 2013-14 and Experiences with access to health care 2013-14 reports both highlighted that nearly 10% of patients delayed seeing a GP due to the cost. Those patients were 1.3 times more likely to visit a public hospital emergency department (ED) because it was free.
In fact, cost was a greater influencing factor over the number of visits to a GP than the person’s age, where they live, and long-term health conditions.
This is unfortunate, because more than 1 in 5 (22%) of those patients who went to the ED rather than their GP said their GP could have provided the same care. Although the public hospital system seems to be getting better at dealing with high numbers of emergency patients each year, patients who only need a GP should be able to see one for free, rather than being forced to visit the hospital by financial stress.
Location also makes a difference, obviously, and people who live in regional or remote areas of Australia were twice as likely to visit an emergency department compared to those living in cities where GPs are plentiful.
Thankfully, recent research has shown that the number of patients who are being bulk-billed is increasing, so the number of those paying too much to see a doctor is slowly decreasing. The stats from Medicare show that compared to 2006-07, when 32% of patients were not being bulk-billed and paying out of pocket to see a GP, in 2015-16, that figure had decreased to 27%.