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09 Apr 2020

I write to you, as I am writing to every doctor in Australia, to acknowledge and commend the success of social isolation in slowing the rate of COVID-19 infections.

However, social isolation is having an unintended consequence. Notwithstanding the rapid introduction of telehealth, patients are largely putting off seeing their doctor. Pathology tests have reduced considerably, and diagnostic and management investigations for cancer and chronic illnesses appear to be drying up.

I’ve spoken publicly this week about the importance of usual care continuing. Click here for more.

I also raised the need for continuing usual patient care with the Commonwealth Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer. I today joined with the Health Minister to urge all Australians to continue seeing their doctor. My joint statement with the Minister can be seen here.

The message for patients to continue access to screening and diagnostic procedures is imperative to avoiding a new healthcare crisis. We must avoid a build-up in undiagnosed and untreated conditions. This large deferral of the burden of disease, associated with the abrupt cessation of all elective surgery (including Category 1 and 2), will result in a significant increase in avoidable preventable morbidity and mortality. Outcomes that we as Australians have been proud of will simply vanish. The quality of our patients’ lives will simply worsen.

The opportunity for more patient care to now be delivered by telehealth is not yet widely understood. The AMA worked with Health Minister Greg Hunt to fast track telehealth access for most general practice and other medical specialist consultations not needing to be conducted in person.

This week, the Commonwealth has relaxed restrictive requirements for bulk billing telehealth consultations in general practice. After Easter, other medical specialist requirements for telehealth bulk billing will also be relaxed.

While non-general practice specialists will have greater discretion than general practitioners about who can be bulk billed, the Government has chosen to support general practice with an injection of funding estimated to be worth over $500m over the next six months.

This funding followed a campaign by the AMA to ensure the Government provided support to practices impacted by the economic downturn, and covers the doubling of the bulk billing incentive for general practitioners, as well as increased Practice Incentive Program (PIP) payments. For details, visit the AMA’s COVID-19 Information Hub by clicking here.

My State and Territory AMA colleagues and I have also this last week been working to refine the detail of the Commonwealth’s private hospital guarantee. To be very clear, this has the capacity to fundamentally change the whole structure of the sector and the underlying doctor-patient relationship. There are many parts to this puzzle yet to unfold.

Our first focus was to ensure that clinically appropriate private patient care, funded through private health insurance, continues in private hospitals. The Commonwealth Department of Health has been responsive. Private patient care will be permitted, with the range of conditions soon to be agreed.

Our other focus was to ensure private medical specialists were engaged for public work in private hospitals safely and fairly. Assurance of indemnity has been a key priority, as has the temporary nature of the arrangements. State and Territory AMAs have taken local leadership.

The AMA has also been working to support medical practices impacted by economic downturn. The AMA proposed to Minister Hunt a medical practice viability supplement. The Minister’s response in general practice was to extend the Practice Incentives Program (PIP), details of which you can access here

Medical practices may also access a range of other business viability supports. The AMA’s COVID-19 Information Hub provides details of these supports, which you can access by clicking here.

We continue to discuss further measures in this space for all affected medical practitioners.

Finally, all the AMA leadership and I have constantly been making the case for additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). There is still insufficient supply, despite genuine constructive efforts of governments. I raised PPE again with the Health Minister today, and I’ll continue to advocate strenuously for more supply.

Similarly, our profession must use scarce PPE judiciously, and we have provided a synopsis of current recommendations here.

If there is anything more that the AMA can do to support you and our profession, please get in touch. Our AMA COVID-19 Team, although now distributed through many home workstations, is working diligently and always here to help. The team can be reached at COVID19@ama.com.au

 

Yours sincerely

Dr Tony Bartone
Federal President


Published: 09 Apr 2020