Mental health issues now dominate GPs’ time

Australia’s GP waiting rooms are increasingly filled with patients seeking help for psychological distress, and overseas-trained GPs have taken the lead in terms of workforce output, according to a new benchmark report from the RACGP. 

Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression have become the most common reasons for GP presentations, and particularly dominate the patient lists of female GPs, the report on current and emerging health trends found.  

The report, General Practice: Health of the Nation 2017, identified Medicare rebates, mental health, obesity and aged care, in that order, as the leading health-policy issues needing immediate government action to maintain high-quality healthcare.   

Psychological conditions were the most frequent reason for patient visits, it said. In a poll of more than 1300 RACGP members, mental health was cited as a top-three issue by 68% of female GPs and 53% of male practitioners. 

RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel said women doctors were taking a lead role in managing psychological issues and obesity, but male doctors were more likely to work full-time.  

“When it comes to the general practice workforce, despite the increase in the number of female GPs, the average number of female GPs working full time in a practice is almost half that of male GPs,” he said. 

The report showed that women now make up 45% of the 35,000-strong GP workforce but only 36% of the full-time service equivalent (FSE), owing to their higher rates of part-time work. 

“The clear difference in male and female FSEs could reduce a patient’s ability to select their preference of a male or female GP,” the report said.  

The report also found that, for the first time since records began, overseas-trained GPs in 2015-16 represented a higher proportion of the FSE than GPs who gained their basic qualifications in Australia and New Zealand.  

The FSE is calculated by the Department of Health based on Medicare claims information, representing hours worked, volume of services and schedule fees.

Mental health was flagged by RACGP members as the health issue causing most concern for the future, followed by obesity and diabetes.  

“This is a clear warning of both the current frequency and future potential impact of psychological ailments on individuals, the community and the broader health sector, “ the report said.  

“It is also a stark reminder that the personal and financial health costs associated with obesity and diabetes are expected to escalate.”