Massaging the benefits: Allied Health the big winners in medicare reform

David Cohen is a practising physiotherapist, and is using Allied Health Providers in his recovery from a major injury.

In May 2022, Labor leader Anthony Albanese promised a $970 million investment in Medicare, including infrastructure upgrades in GP practices, if they won the election.

Fast forward to January 2023 and the taskforce that was established by the Albanese government in response to their election victory is about to hand down their preliminary report that will reflect substantial changes to the Medicare system.

There is no doubt that our local GPs put in a significant amount of effort during the pandemic, providing vaccination advice and administering vaccines whilst maintaining their caseload all with very little financial support from the previous government.

The Albanese government has proposed structural changes to Medicare to allow a greater scope of care by our Allied Health Practitioners.

These Allied Health Practitioners (physiotherapists, nurses, occupational therapists, mental health providers and pharmacists) were just as important to the functioning of our medical system throughout the pandemic and reducing the burden on our already overloaded GPs.

Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) President Dr Nicole Higgins has criticised this proposed change suggesting that “empowering multidisciplinary teams without GP stewardship could be a recipe for disaster”.

The Australian Physiotherapy Association President Scott Willis challenged this statement outlining the successful implementation of First Contact Physiotherapy in the United Kingdom that demonstrated a reduction in unnecessary medical imaging, opioid prescription and improved patient outcomes.

Allied Health Practitioners in Australia are primary care practitioners - meaning that a GP referral is not required to be seen by these practitioners.

All these practitioners have tertiary-level education in their respective fields, with most having studied for more than 6 years to be specialised.

At the epicentre of this debate is the patient. What is best for the patient?

The pandemic taught the Medical and Allied Health disciplines quite a lot regarding patient-centred care through a multidisciplinary team.

For those that require specific needs, the GP is the cornerstone of their healthcare journey. Compulsory Third Party (CTP) and Workers Compensation patients are currently treated through a multidisciplinary team approach albeit a clunky one.

But for the average patient that has a musculoskeletal injury and is being managed by a physiotherapist that requires an appropriate referral to a sports physician, orthopaedic surgeon or medical imaging, under the current Medicare system the GP must review the patient before either agreeing or disagreeing with the physiotherapist's opinion.

In this situation, opening up referral opportunities to Allied Health Practitioners can not only streamline the patient journey but also can assist in reducing the burden of care placed upon the GP.

The next few months will be a challenging time for the Albanese government regarding Medicare reform and providing opportunities for the empowerment of Allied Health Practitioners.

David Cohen is a Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist and Allied Health Practitioner. He operates a physiotherapy and sports massage practice at SportsLab in Sydney.