COVID-19 and medical workforce: report shows loss of income and potential new ways of working

Doctor works on a laptop
Despite the loss of income when compared to full-fee face-to-face-appointments for some, 84 per cent of all those surveyed agreed that telehealth should be permanently funded by Medicare

General Practitioners (GPs) and other specialists have experienced significant changes to workload and income during the pandemic, according to a new report by the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne.

Led by Professor Anthony Scott, the latest ANZ–Melbourne Institute Health Sector Report examines the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on GP’s and other specialists’ work patterns and mental health, along with how they changed the organisation of their practices to adapt to the pandemic, and the support they have received.

More than 2000 GPs and other specialists completed the Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life (MABEL) COVID-19 Short Online Survey. This is part of the Melbourne Institute’s custom-designed longitudinal study of doctors.

The results reveal the rapid shift to Medicare-funded telehealth consultations, with 36 per cent of all consultations provided by telehealth in April 2020.

This allowed GPs to continue to look after patients in a safe environment and help protect them from some loss of income. But the majority of consultations were provided by telephone rather than video, raising some concerns about quality and continuity of care if Medicare continues to fund telehealth after the pandemic.

Telehealth was more likely to be used by GPs in wealthier areas, in urban areas, and by larger GP practices.

Twenty percent of GPs and 42 per cent of other specialists reported losses in income of 30 per cent or more, while 20 per cent of surgeons and anaesthetists reported their income had fallen by 50 per cent or more.

More than half of the GPs surveyed increased the number of face-to-face consultations they bulk bill, and nearly a third of respondents reported feeling financially stressed as a result of these losses in income.

Financial stress was a strong contributor to stress and poorer mental health. Another contributor to stress was a perceived lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

GP practices in the wealthiest areas were hardest hit in terms of income losses and fall in patient numbers, most likely as a result of the substitution of bulk billed telehealth consults in place of the usual full-fee face-to-face consults.

Despite the loss of income when compared to full-fee face-to-face-appointments for some, 84 per cent of all those surveyed agreed that telehealth should be permanently funded by Medicare.

Professor Scott said that while Australia’s healthcare system had not been overwhelmed by the first stages of pandemic, restrictions still had a considerable impact, with non-urgent elective surgery temporarily suspended and social distancing measures indirectly discouraging people from seeking medical care for fear of catching the virus.

“The pandemic and its consequences have accelerated a number of pre-existing trends in the healthcare sector and among the medical workforce, including increased use of telehealth and lower growth in the use of private medical care,” Professor Scott said.

“These changes can also be seen as offering new opportunities to improve the delivery of medical care in Australia.

“As everyone adjusts to the ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic, we will begin to see how these changes can benefit patients and influence the quality, costs and access to healthcare in the future.”

ANZ Head of Health, Richard Grayson said: “ANZ is proud to partner with the Melbourne Institute again this year to understand some of the key trends facing one of our country’s most essential sectors.

“In the current environment, Australians are more acutely aware of their health than ever before and supporting the healthcare sector to succeed and thrive is incredibly important.”

This is the fourth in a series of health sector-specific reports commissioned by ANZ and researched and written by the University of Melbourne. The views in this report are those of the author and not the ANZ Banking Group Limited.

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