After hours GP helpline set for a return

The after hours GP helpline that was initially thought to have been axed by the federal government in the May budget is set for a return.

The helpline was first introduced by the Labor government in 2011 as a free, national service that was intended in part to relieve after hours pressure on regional and rural GPs as well as to provide medical advice to patients unable to see their regular GP.

Callers to the helpline were triaged by a nurse who then referred the patient on to a GP if appropriate. The service was fully funded by the federal government and was managed by Healthdirect Australia on its behalf, with the service delivered by Medibank Health Solutions.

However, former RACGP president Claire Jackson recommended in her review of after hours primary healthcare, completed last October and publicly released in May, that direct federal funding to the helpline should not continue in its current form beyond the completion of its contract at the end of the 2015 financial year.

The service was funded to the tune of $42 million in 2013-14 but was thought to have fallen victim, along with the $122 million after hours programs run by Medicare Locals, to cuts in the 2015-16 budget. Funding for the helpline and ML programs was redirected in the budget to pay for the government's new Practice Incentives Program (PIP) after hours payment.

Professor Jackson recommended that the money be reallocated to support after hours services delivery locally. She reported that there were mixed views on the worth of the helpline but said a cost-benefit analysis was beyond the purview of her report.

A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health has confirmed that while the government has taken Professor Jackson's recommendation on board, it still intends to continue with a similar service, although details are not yet available.

“The Review of After Hours Primary Health Care, conducted by Professor Claire Jackson in late 2014, concluded that funding for the after hours GP helpline service should not continue in its then current form,” the spokeswoman said in a statement to Pulse+IT.

“The Government has supported this recommendation, however remains committed to Australians being able to access this service.

“From 1 July 2015, transition commenced to implement a new after hours GP advice and support line to better support all Australians who do not have access to face to face GP services in the after hours period. This will include, but is not limited to, Australians in rural and remote areas.”

The spokeswoman was unable to provide further details.

While the helpline was disparaged in some quarters amid accusations that upwards of 50 per cent of callers were directed to an emergency department or back to a face-to-face GP, the figures for the helpline show that fewer than 10 per cent of callers were directed to an ED and less than one per cent were transferred to Triple Zero 000.

Figures from Professor Jackson's report show that between January and June 2014, the most frequent types of advice given by GPs through the helpline were:

  • Self care advice and see a doctor/health provider within normal operating hours – 52.2%
  • See a GP immediately – 26.3%
  • Self care at home – 10.9%
  • Emergency department immediately – 6%
  • No recommendation reached – 4%
  • Transfer to 000 – 0.6%

Clinical issues referred to the service included medication queries, diarrhoea, rash/hives/eruptions, dizziness/vertigo, nausea/vomiting, headache, gastrointestinal bleeding and chest pain.

Seven of the top 20 conditions reported involved paediatric patients for conditions such as cough, vomiting, croup, diarrhoea, hives, earache and constipation.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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