Copayment Shmopayment

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I must confess that I cannot see any benefit from the proposed Medicare copayment either as a price signal or a revenue saver. And I stress that I am loath to write off any approach to improving health care in Australia. It is difficult to think of a blunter, more chaos inducing instrument to apply to Medicare. How will it save money? Largely from committed general practices located in deprived areas – the more committed the higher the saving.

The most lucrative savings will arise from pressure on practices to accept the lower bulk billing rebate – this will save $7 per visit. Let’s face facts, GPs already do this for the majority of patients; in poorer areas GPs will have to continue to do so at a very high rate because many people will be unable to or will refuse to pay. What will we do for a 29 year old who has no income and new onset diabetes? How will we manage an infection in someone who drinks their weekly income on pay day, or a refugee who has no income. In many Aboriginal Health Clinics it will be devastating. Please imaging living in poor over crowed housing on the edge of a town or in a remote area without public transport or any other facilities, with high prices for all consumables and getting the same income as a person living in a well resourced urban area. In the NT discretionary spending may be little more than a single visit to the clinic. The $7 (plus test on costs) will be a care killer. The primary care ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative has provide free health care and has had a big impact where I work. The copayment will reverse these gains immediately. Government Ck-Ching, primary care Ck-Chang.

The safety net is a massive administrative issue – $70 a year limit for an individual ($490 for a family of 7). How on earth will this be managed? Such approaches may have worked while the money was reimbursed but this is a payment at the time of service, prior to service for many I suspect. Who will keep tabs on who has reached $70? What a nightmare. We have had Medicare fraud with sharing of Medicare cards for some time. This will certainly add to incentives to share cards, only presenting with cards that have reached the limit.

The Corporate Practices who are profit focused will be working on ways to generate the same income without adding disincentives to patients. Such practices appear to be the primary target of this copayment but I am equally sure they will be best placed to minimise the loss of income. We are likely to see a major escalation of SIP payments and payments for non-attendance items in response to this. Government will get their dollars back, but new leakage is likely to occur. Successful approaches will put pressure on surrounding practices to match them.

I am the first to admit that there is wastage in primary care and that we do more harm that we intend. I am very interested in spending Medicare dollars where it is likely to return greater benefit. I have already raised one such approach in a previous blog Saving Medicare. But I do not think that the proposed copayment will do anything but harm in many areas of this country. I would like to work with Government to come up with focused responses to the use of Medicare funds that are wasteful. Our College is the vehicle to do this and has developed the slogan #CoPayNoWay  using social media – the top tweets can be found here.

Watch out – Medicare Shmedicare.

Facing complexity

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The wonderful Jan Radford (you should follow her on twitter)  drew my attention to Garth et al’s excellent study on repeat prescription management in general practice. I enjoyed the approach, a  feel good experience. On reflection I think this paper is avoiding complexity and seeing it as a problem for the consumer. Is that fair?

Why do people take medications that are of marginal benefit or doing them harm? Why do so many patients attend and ask for their scripts without any concern for their health and the continuing relevance of these medicines?

My introduction to the study of repeat prescribing was Michael Balint’s excellent research work with a group of GPs entitled “Treatment or Diagnosis: research into repeat prescribing in general practice” published in the 1970s. Although this predates many pharmaceutical treatments for chronic disease, it raises critical issues with regard to human behaviour and receiving medications as a surrogate for care. These are perhaps more relevant today. What does taking the medication mean for that person? Did it start when their mother died, perhaps their child or spouse? Is it the one remaining legacy of a doctor that helped them a great deal and is missed terribly? Does it avoid conversation and inquiry and keep the doctor happy?

A friend told me how he turned up for a script for his epileptic medicine for years after he stopped taking it, just to keep the doctor happy – he was too scared to say he had stopped it. Many people are afraid to stop taking something that affects them negatively for fear of something worse – the wrath of relatives or doctor? The fear of withdrawal effects?

We are the source of repeat prescribing and if we expect people to be organised 99% of the time, then a few people will run short unexpectedly every day. Should we blame them? The amounts vary – 28 or 30 tablets for some things – 25 or 50 tablets for others – 5 or 2 repeats. How do they manage at all? Is the list of medications in their file an “all time list” or an up-to-date managed list. Do you actually know what they are taking?

Then we have the narcotic repeat prescriptions – perhaps 100,000 medical addicts who cannot be late or they feel sick. When will we doctors learn that narcotics do not work for chronic pain, in fact they clearly exacerbate the problem. And Endone should be banned (along with its long acting preparations). What are we doing to people? A pain clinic referral is unlikely to help as the return letters  only seems to justify the damage or at least ease the conscience of the GP.

Finally, we can insist on people waiting for an appointment if they urgently need a script but have been reviewed recently, as a punishment and monetary tactic. This enables the doctor to be seen and the fee to be subsidised or bulk billed.  Is this a reasonable use of public money and is there any measurable benefit?

Repeat prescribing is truly complicated, involving issues of compliance, funding, safety, quality and motivation. Difficulties cannot be seen solely as a problem patients bring on themselves.  The doctor’s statement “Your lack of organisation doesn’t constitute our emergency” could be reflected as “Your complexity, dependency inducement and chaos causes our emergency”. Whatever your point of view, repeat prescribing illustrates the complexity of modern general practice.

Wherefore Good Fellows

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I am pleased with the attention our President of the RACGP is giving to the issue of prescribing Roaccutane.(isotretinoin). It is a serious drug that is used to treat a common condition. Liz Marles is advocating that the prescription should be made in general practice.

There are good reasons for this. First, at least in my experience, if I refer for this purpose to a dermatologist they invariably prescribe. Second, contraception and adherence is something we know about and is the main argument for specialist review. Third, NZ GPs have been doing well since being able to prescribe the drug in 2009.

I would argue that, where such regulator concerns exist, at least in the first instance, Fellows of the RACGP should be able to prescribe the medication as specialist general practitioners. This provides evidence to regulators and patients that the GP has reached a suitable standard to take such action and monitor progress. I understand there are good doctors working in general practice without Fellowship, some no doubt far better than I. However, when actions demand high standards of care it seems reasonable to initially back doctors who have put themselves through assessment by their peers to ensure they are suitable for independent practice.

I would go further and promote those specialist general practitioners, their training and commitment to standards. Does the general public understand what Fellowship means? Do politicians? Do they understand that no one has been grandfathered by the RACGP?

Does your practice draw attention to Fellowship and what this means to your patients? Do they have a right to know?

Saving Medicare

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Consider carefully

I personally worry at the waste in healthcare and how we can save on Medicare. Unless we do something we will have to start thinking about how to save Medicare itself. To give an example: prior to the arrival of bulk billing practices in Darwin a few years ago we had one radiology provider and a couple of pathology companies. We now have 4 radiology providers and a few extra pathology providers. These also bulk bill. So I can now order unlimited blood tests and radiology without cost to myself, the practice or the consumer (a more appropriate name in this setting). I can get an MRI in 15 minutes and almost any test apart from an ultrasound within the hour.

I can’t imagine the actual increase in costs – is anyone imagining? I do see the result of confused patients with multiple positive obscure serological tests and a cascade of radiology – each new test suggested by the radiologist to rule out the sinister nature of some incidental finding on the previous view. Further tests require further brief visits while time heals almost all things. Dollars all round – nobody’s money.

This is not ideal and the opportunity cost of unnecessary attendances, laboratory tests and radiology investigations is probably massive in terms of non-health fields such as housing and other basic services. So why don’t we come up with some alternatives for consideration. A $7 co-payment  doesn’t seem to do the job at all and seems to have few advocates. Here is an idea of my own which has had as little thought as the co-payment but might help funds go where they do more good.

Any attendance resulting in issuing of a private medical certificate for a period off work of less than 7 days will not be billable to Medicare. This would apply at the time of the visit or at any point in the future (to avoid being able to issue the medical certificate at a later date in order to claim the fee) but would not apply to parent or carer certificates for children.

Would this reduce medicare claims? Would it reduce the time off work for minor illness? Could it work? Would it be open to gaming? Let me know what you think.

Technology for GPs

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Technology Wasteland?

I see general practice as a technology wasteland. The problem is that while many useful technologies exist, these are neither designed to work in nor priced for general practice. Since the electrical rhythm of the heart was first recorded at St Bartholomew’s hospital in 1872 and the subsequent development of the ECG machine, there has been little in the way of major technology uptake in general practice. There are some notable exceptions; the spirometer is used reasonably often while clinic-based blood sugar, INR and SO2 measurements are definitely very useful and very affordable. Yet while individual patients regularly invest in these laboratory technologies, many practices do not.

The obvious example of a technology suitable for general practice is the ultrasound. First, it is a visual tool and can be seen by the doctor and patient. Second, real time imaging is essential for interpretation. Third, it both requires and enables maintenance of anatomical knowledge which is itself useful for primary care doctors. Finally, it is a massive convenience for our patients if we can exclude an intrauterine death, see an intrauterine pregnancy, look for subcutaneous foreign bodies or drainable collections, do guided injections and the like.  It is so obvious that this will be a key technology for GPs – it is safe, not expensive and provides value for patients who can also see what is going on. We need to work with companies developing ultrasound equipment to get it right for our setting. This will not displace radiologists but extends a service and convenience for our patients.

I do not want to decide which technologies might be taken up by GPs. There are so many to choose from. I would like our College to support the adaption of useful technologies for use in general practice, assist those wanting to pioneer use and then be custodian for the knowledge and skills-base required to implement the technology successfully for the benefit of our patients. This might be a useful app on a smart phone or a complex integrated fibre optic camera to view places difficult to see! Only our imagination will limit the possibilities.

Let the dance begin. The RACGP is the rightful facilitator and custodian of these endeavours.