Guide to choosing a GP

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  • Updated:6 Feb 2006
 

01 .General practicioners

The relationship you have with your doctor can be one of the most crucial in your life, particularly if you have a chronic condition or develop a serious illness.

Your GP will:

  • co-ordinate your care and refer you for tests and to specialists, nursing and other health services so you get complete healthcare.
  • help you stay in good health and prevent unnecessary visits to a hospital.

A positive ongoing relationship with your GP is extremely valuable, making it all the more important to choose the right one.

Please note: this information was current as of February 2006 but is still a useful guide today.


If the relationship with your current GP isn’t working you might be thinking of looking around for a new one. Or you might need a new doctor because you’ve moved house, or your usual doctor is retiring, for example.

To find a new GP you can:

  • Ask your current doctor for advice, if your relationship’s good.
  • Ask for recommendations from family, friends and neighbours.
  • Ask the local pharmacist or other medical professionals who have dealings with doctors in the area.
  • Ring your local Division of General Practice (ADGP) and ask for a list of the doctors practising in your area. Some divisions can even provide additional information about the doctors — interests and expertise or languages spoken, for example.
  • Professional associations such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) may also be able to help.

See Useful contacts for details. 

What to look for

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of possible doctors, visit their practices and consider the following:

  • Location. Is the practice reasonably easy for you to get to? You might find it more convenient to see a GP closer to your work rather than home.
  • Opening hours. Extended hours are an advantage if you have a chronic condition that tends to flare up at odd times. Medical centres tend to be open longer hours than traditional surgeries, but you won’t necessarily get to see the same doctor every time unless you book in advance. If you need a prescription or some other medical attention outside your regular doctor’s surgery hours you might find it convenient to drop into a 24-hour medical centre and see a different GP. If you do this, tell your regular doctor about the visit and any medication that was prescribed. Continuity of care is important for good health, particularly if you have a chronic condition, and incomplete medical records can be a problem.
  • Home visits. Does the practice offer this service? (It’s interesting that a recent study found that, compared with young GPs (under 35), older GPs provided more home visits and attendances at residential aged-care facilities.)
  • Language spoken. If English isn’t your first language, non-English language skills from GPs and other staff might be important.
  • GP gender. If the gender of the doctor treating you is important to you then it's worth asking about this before attending the practice. Interestingly, a study in 2005 found that older GPs (65+) and female GPs generally provided longer consultations, so if you tend sometimes to feel rushed, bear it in mind.
  • Premises. Do the rooms look clean and inviting? If you’ll be going there with small children, are there toys and/or an area where they can play?
  • Information. Printed health materials on offer in the waiting room are a plus — they show the practice is aware of the importance of public health education. A Practice Information Sheet provides information on fees, appointments, home visits, repeat prescriptions and so on.
  • Specialities. Do any of the doctors have extra qualifications or areas of expertise that might be of benefit to you? A diploma in obstetrics or paediatrics can be useful if you’re a woman in her reproductive years or you have young kids, for example.
  • Accreditation. There are agencies (Australian General Practice Accreditation — AGPAL — and General Practice Australia — GPA, for example) that independently rate the quality of general practices and award accreditation to practices that meet a benchmark quality standard. Ask the practice if it’s accredited or look for an accreditation certificate or logo on display.
  • Billing. Ask how you’ll be billed when you make an appointment. You may be able to get a discount if you pay upfront; it may cost more to have an appointment on a Sunday; or the practice may bulk-bill. See Bulk-billing for details.

Once you’ve chosen, take the plunge and go in for a consultation. There’s no obligation to go back to that doctor if you’re not satisfied. Your final choice should be a GP with whom you feel most comfortable — one whose knowledge and judgment you trust, and with whom you can talk freely and openly.

A positive ongoing relationship with your GP is extremely valuable.

 
 

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02.Medical records and eHealth

 

Keeping track of your records

Whichever practice you end up going to, ideally your medical records should go with you.

  • If you change GPs you can either authorise your old practice to provide a copy or summary of your health information to your new GP, or ask your new GP to write and request the information themselves.
  • If the practice you usually go to closes down, or if your GP leaves the practice or dies, things aren’t so simple. In general there’s very little regulation about what happens to your medical records in these situations, and it varies in each state and territory. In Victoria, for example, the law stipulates that patients must be provided with written notice about what’s going to happen to their records, where practical, and a notice must also be placed in a local newspaper. Similar laws exist in the ACT. But in other states you may not be given that consideration.

Storage of records

  • In the case of medical records that aren’t transferred or claimed, arrangements might have been made for them to be stored securely under a third party’s supervision.
  • In several states there are laws that specify how long records must be kept before they can be destroyed. So if you don’t get a chance to claim your records before the practice closes, you might be able to track them down after the event.
  • But if you’re not informed of their whereabouts or you happen to miss the notice in the paper, there’s not a lot you can do. Not only is this an issue of privacy — who knows who might have access to the records while they’re in limbo? — but at best it’s an inconvenience and at worst a health risk for patients to be deprived of access to their medical histories.

There are professional guidelines for the management of health information, including the retention of medical records in GP practices, but CHOICE thinks they should be made law.

eHealth

The Federal Government’s vision is a national, cradle-to-grave, electronic health record for all Australians. Your eHealth record would hold your complete medical history from diagnosis details and treatments to all contacts you’ve had with the health system.

In theory this appears to be a sensible move. Having eHealth records could help prevent unnecessary or inappropriate treatment, and could provide protection against potential adverse drug interactions and allergies. And there are clear benefits for some consumers in not having to repeat complex medical histories if visiting a range of health professionals.

But in practice there are unresolved issues, primarily relating to privacy — it’s uncertain as to where and how consumers’ information will be stored, and who will have access to the records, for example. And with the nightmare current plan that each state and territory will implement and manage its own eHealth initiative, things are complicated even further.

CHOICE wants all consumer concerns to be addressed before this eHealth vision becomes a reality.

Consultation costs

A major consideration for some people is whether or not a medical practice bulk-bills. As a patient, bulk-billing is great — you pay nothing upfront, and you don’t have to go to the trouble of claiming fees back from Medicare. The problem is that it’s not always available.

  • Figures from Medicare indicate that around 75% of all GP services are bulk-billed. But while practices often bulk-bill concession cardholders, many charge other patients privately.
  • A recent survey of GPs found that just 28.7% bulk-billed Medicare for all patients and 20% bulk-billed for pensioner/Commonwealth concession cardholders only.

The reason for this, according to the AMA, is that GPs can no longer afford to bulk-bill all their patients. When Medicare first began many GPs bulk-billed because rebates were close to the cost of providing the service, but the AMA says this is no longer the case. The estimated cost of providing a standard (Level B) consultation is $55 but the rebate is just $31.45.

Length of consultation

It’s also been argued that charging fees allows GPs to spend more time with each patient. The length of the consultation with your doctor is important, with longer consultations associated with higher patient satisfaction and increased likelihood of preventive care, among other benefits. And there’s a concern that where practices do mainly bulk-bill, GPs may find themselves under pressure to see more patients more quickly to remain viable. However, in reality there’s no published evidence suggesting you’ll receive a shorter consultation if you’re bulk-billed than if you’re privately billed.

That said, financial incentives under the current Medicare Benefit Schedule (MBS) structure certainly don’t favour long consultations. For example, the rebate for a Level B consultation item, which can be up to 20 minutes long, is the same whether the consultation finishes after six minutes or 20 minutes, with the greatest per-minute financial return obviously being for six-minute consultations. Given that the average consultation length is 15 minutes, there’s little financial incentive for GPs to bulk-bill and it’s not surprising that some prefer to bill privately.

A report to the Federal Government in 2003 proposed a change to this MBS structure, but there’s been no action on this to date. Apart from some additional incentives to bulk-bill specific groups, including Commonwealth concession cardholders and children under 16, the situation remains the same.

CHOICE thinks everyone should have access to bulk-billing services, and wants disincentives that face bulk-billing GPs to be removed.

Locating a GP

To find contact details for your local Division of General Practice, or the AMA or RACGP in your state or territory, go to:

Making a complaint

If you have a complaint about some aspect of your healthcare (the clinical treatment you’ve received or your doctor’s conduct, for example), it’s a good idea to first discuss your concerns with your doctor or another doctor in the practice. But if this doesn’t resolve your problem, you have several options.

You can complain to:

  • The independent health services commission/ombudsman in your state or territory.
  • The relevant Medical Board in your state or territory.
  • Your local branch of the AMA or other professional association of which your doctor is a member, where applicable.

For contact details for these bodies in each state and territory go to Complaint Line.