Why doctors run late: 12 red tape challenges

In the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series you get to choose the topic. If you have a great idea you want the world to know about, feel free to contact me. Last week members of the GPs Down Under (GPDU) Facebook group posted their red tape bugbears. Melbourne GP Dr Karen Price, who is an admin of the group, suggested to blog about the issues that slow doctors down.

Patients are often understandably frustrated about waiting times. A couple of years ago I blogged about the reasons why I run late, including the daily healthcare bureaucracy doctors have to deal with. I’m sad to say the amount of red tape hasn’t changed.

Australia is not making good use of its medical workforce. Example: An estimated 25,000 patient consultations are lost every month while doctors are making phone calls to the PBS authority script phone line.

Instead of reducing the amount of paperwork for doctors – so they can see their patients quicker – other professionals are asked to take over parts of the clinical job.

There are of course other reasons why doctors run late, but the focus of this post is on healthcare bureaucracy. So here is a summary of the GPDU Facebook discussion on the abundant red tape that slows doctors down, summarised in 12 points.

#1: Sick notes

Medical certificates for all sorts of issues seem to be increasingly popular, and every day thousands of doctors issue tens of thousands of notes.

This is not only a significant cost to Medicare, it also increases waiting times. Doctors have no problem issuing a genuine sick certificate as part of a consultation, but often people come in when they are getting better, just to get a certificate at the request of their employer.

Sometimes medical certificates seem to be used to shift liability when doctors are asked to declare that someone is fit for certain (recreational) activities. And, do we really always need a medical certificate when our children cannot attend daycare or school?

#2: Provider numbers

Medicare provider numbers are a bugbear for doctors and registrars, and have been for years.

One GP said: “Repeated applications for provider numbers through Medicare with the same information are such a waste of time. Surely they have my name, address, e-mail and multiple provider numbers already. An online portal with a ‘click’ application or submission of paperwork for would be amazing.”

Another GP: “For practices employing a new rural doctor there are at least 14 different forms across Commonwealth and State/Territory jurisdictions – some forms online, some scannable, some mailed, yes, with a stamp, some faxed. Software that would streamline at least some of those forms – even going to different destinations but auto-filled – would encourage practices to take more registrars and more prevocational doctors.”

#3: PBS authority phone line

Another major bugbear: Australian doctors have to ring this phone line before they can prescribe common medications. They must ring every time a script runs out, even if the patient has been taking the medicines for many years. The line is often busy and doctors and their patients are kept waiting. A short consultation can easily become a more expensive long consultation as a result of the waiting time.

Removing some medications from this scheme to a streamlined electronic procedure has not changed prescribing habits, which seems to indicate that the phone line doesn’t really serve a purpose. Also, some countries without a script line have lower antibiotic resistance patterns than Australia.

The approval process is bizarre. Doctors are asked the daily dose for an adrenaline emergency auto injector or have to spell the name of the drug as call centre operators have no clue.

Why doctors run late

A GP said: “After 5 minutes of waiting I’ve run out of small talk with the patient. By 6 minutes I’m almost considering to talk my patient out of starting Champix. And by nearly seven minutes waiting my usually cheerful manner with the call centre operator is gone.”

Another GP: “Sitting on the phone waiting for authority – why do I need permission from a bureaucrat to prescribe something?”

#4: Medicare and Centrelink

Medicare and Centrelink take up a lot of valuable time. The MBS criteria for example have been a constant source of confusion and stress for doctors. The endless paperwork is a challenge for doctors and practice managers.

One GP said: “Centrelink manages to outsource a tremendous amount of form filling in. Surely it contributes to green house gasses…”

Another GP: “Medicare forms… Some you can scan and e-mail back, some must be posted, others can be faxed but not emailed.”

#5: Handwriting charts, notes and scripts

Nearly all GP practices are computerised. Still we get requests from organisations to handwrite important documents.

Residential aged care facilities and community nursing teams often require handwritten medication orders, and don’t accept a printed chart generated by GP desktop software.

Some nursing homes and most hospitals ask that doctors, including visiting GPs, handwrite their notes. This also includes shared antenatal care. One GP said: “While I agree that the handheld obstetric records are exceptionally important, doubling up and having to write in them plus your computerised notes is inefficient – or print out your notes and have multiple loose prices of paper floating around each time.”

“I have some intellectually disabled adult patients in a group home and the script situation is tedious,” a doctor said. “Every panadol, every small change to prescribing, has to be documented and faxed to the chemist, and every consultation requires a form to be filled out and the consultation notes to be printed.”

The law requires doctors to handwrite opiate scripts underneath the printed text – and on both copies of the script – to reduce the risk of forgery. This has become obsolete for many practices as an electronic copy of the script can be sent to the pharmacy to avoid fraud. Other innovative developments such as real-time prescription monitoring will further make handwriting scripts unnecessary.

#6: Working with kids, working with elderly, working with vulnerable elderly checks

These new requirements for AHPRA registered doctors seem unnecessary. “I have to get not one single police check, but three checks,” said a GP. “‘Working with kids’, ‘Working with elderly’ and ‘Working with vulnerable adults’ checks before can work in country hospital, all at my expense. I work in an already highly regulated industry, I am trusted with scalpels and mind-altering drugs, and have an annual AHPRA registration renewal, but must do all this foolishness every few years.”

#7: Proof of AHPRA-registration

Doctors often have to provide a copy of their AHPRA registration, but registration details including the expiry date can be easily looked up by anyone on the APHRA website

#8: Travel cost assistance 

A GP said: “Filling out Patient Assisted Travel Scheme forms for rural patients is getting more tedious: We now have to write a letter stating exactly why our patients need an escort. Ticking the box isn’t enough.”

#9: Pharmacies

Pharmacies can add value in many ways, but when it comes to collaboration there is room for improvement.

One GP said that a pharmacy happily managed her patient’s blood thinners, but when the INR results were outside the normal range they referred back to the GP. “Apparently this service is more ‘convenient’ as well as lucrative for the pharmacist. Until the INR level is more than 2.5…Then, late Friday afternoon, the pharmacy demands I manage the warfarin dose. So then it’s suddenly my problem. They get paid lots of money for a service I do for free.”

A common bugbear of GPs is the ‘owing scripts to pharmacy’ problem. Some pharmacies provide ongoing medications even if the script has run out. As a result patients miss their check-ups with the doctor and request an ‘owing’ script from their GP at a later stage.

In defence of the pharmacy: doctors are not always on time with sending scripts to the pharmacy.

#10: Accreditation

One GP expressed concerns about the never-ending accreditation requirements: “Not the principle, but the realities. Broadly speaking: Individual clinicians need to be accredited multiple times, not just by AHPRA, but by government (working with children checks etc), local hospitals, regional training providers (to be supervisors) etc.”

“Practices need multiple accreditations – separate ones to be training practices for example – and all very painful. Regional training organisations need to go through hoop jumping accreditation processes by the colleges, the colleges by the Australian Medical Council. Never-ending and so much time wasted.”

#11: Care plans, EPCs and mental health care plans

The rules designed by Medicare to manage chronic care in general practice have been the topic of heated debates. For example: Patients with a chronic illness cannot claim their Medicare rebate when the GP does a care plan and treats an acute problem on the same day. This means that many patients have to come back on another day, further increasing waiting times.

“Care plans and mental health plans interrupt my patient contact and workflow,” one GP said. “If a GP was rewarded more this templated rubbish would be done anyway as part of usual care by the good doctors.”

Another doctor said: “Did you know that people used to actually pay to see allied health professionals prior to GP care plans? Now it seems all allied health contact is required to be limited to five free visits per year.”

#12: Hospital bureaucracy

Making an appointment for a patient can be challenging sometimes. One GP said: “The hospital ‘outpatients direct’ won’t let me help organise an appointment for a patient without them being with me at the time, because of confidentiality. But I wrote the referral and need to know the date of the appointment to arrange transport or they won’t get there.”

Many hospitals have referral criteria and they’re not aways flexible: “Queensland public hospitals have extensive referral criteria. They don’t accept GP referrals that don’t tick their boxes – often checked by non-medical staff.”

Hospitals can really slow GPs down with extra paperwork requirements: “The orthopaedic outpatient department doesn’t accept a GP referral until we have provided them with a completed 3-page ‘hip & knee questionnaire’.”

Sometimes hospital doctors send a patient back to the GP for a referral to another hospital doctor. Many GPs feel that in some (especially urgent) cases an internal referral with a copy to the GP would be much more efficient.

Rural GPs often work in hospitals and emergency wards. Transferring sick patients to a bigger hospital is a challenge in some states: “Western Australia has a long way to go: I first have to call the RFDS, then the hospital and speak to the accepting team – if lucky one call, if unlucky several calls. Then I need to call the ED to inform them about the expected patient. I have to call the RFDS for an update. Then the registrar calls back after speaking to their boss. Then the hospital bed manager calls and lets me know there are no beds available, so I need to go to another tertiary hospital etc. I hardly have time to look after the patient and talk to their next of kin.”

One GP said about requesting investigations: “To organise a CT-scan at the hospital from a rural ED, I have to make phone calls to the radiologist, the CT tech, the ED consultant, the specialty registrar (if applicable), and the bed manager. If one of those phone calls is missed… hoo boy, you’d think that I’d killed Santa Claus.”

We need ongoing conversations with each other, managers and decision makers to avoid unnecessary red tape and improve the patient journey across various parts of the health system.

Thanks to Dr Karen Price for the topic suggestion.

15 thoughts on “Why doctors run late: 12 red tape challenges

    • PKI Certificates being used whilst Patient is in with Doctor and unbeknown to the patient, the GP is looking at patient Medicare entitlements and looking for what can be claimed on the day or in the future and more appointments are then enforced upon this patient. I refer to it as GP raping patients medicare entitlements and have seen this in play many many times. Many patients do not even realise they are having MHCP performed on them just because they might be having a ‘bad day’ as the Doctor sees this as another opportunity to claim for this item and bulk-bill direct to Medicare without the patients written consent


      • Wow – while I would agree that EPC items are for the most part useless and just a moneymaking racket the accusations in this comment are a bit concerning. I would assume you are referring to using the PCEHR to look up Medicare details or what are you referring to? I certainly cannot believe that any GP would have the time to stuff around with a Dongle and a website portal to go and look up what Medicare items number can be used while the patient is in front of them. Takes way too long.

        I would also be concerned if you are aware of GPs doing EPC items on patients without patients’ consent or even worse unbeknown to the patient – if you are aware of this have you reported this to the Fraudline?

        What is your role in this debate – GP, Practice Nurse, admin staff or patient ?


  • As a patient of 70yrs of age, I couldn’t agree more with the fact that docs have to waste so much time on red tape. I know l feel guilty every time l need to have doc ring through for a script for me. I’m so aware when I am with a Dr of their time that I rush and usually come away forgetting something! Another time waster when l need to call back for the script l forgot? Oh dear!
    What I would like to hear is any opinions on the topic of ‘Medical Orphans’ which I heard Dr Louise Stone, Medical Educator, discuss on SBS recently.
    With a family of 3 generations of improperly or insufficiently diagnosed, and certainly not successfully treated, autoimmune disease sufferers I wonder will this go on forever with families like mine suffering, seeing their parents, themselves, their children become unable to walk, in great pain, or bedridden without hope.
    Obviously GP’s do not have the time or training to help, but the rounds of Neurologists, Rheumatologists, Haemotologists, etc etc proves to be of no help at all. We see,eg, a Neurologist who thinks he may be able to help, orders some tests and says come back! Then it takes another 3 mths to get an appointment with him, by which time some other problem ineeds a Rheumatologist ,another 3 months?….
    No wonder l’m 72 without a diagnosis or treatment!
    It takes a group of specialists working together – as they do in USA in special clinics.
    I have spent my lifetime, well, from 14yrs old, in pain without much help apart from the surgeons who finally remove the organs that deteriorate from some as yet unknown systemic disease.
    My time has run out but I worry is there any hope in the future for others, my children who l must watch deteriorate, with these diseases, of which there must be hundreds of thousands in Aus!
    Are there any answers?


  • Reblogged this on Dr Thinus' musings and commented:

    Referring to an actual Orthopaedic Surgeon in a public hospital – what luxury. In the ACT we have no other option than sending them to a Physiotherapist run clinic who decides if they will graciously allow the referral past them to see the Orthopod months/years later (with apology to Monthy Python’s four Yorshiremen)


    • A PKI Certificate comes in the form of a USB Token which is plugged into the harddrive and gives GP’s and their co-workers direct access into patient medicare entitlements. These USB Tokens have to be applied for through Medicare and are not issued to anyone unless working in the Medical profession. Certain Item Numbers (721, 723, 2715 etc) can be entered into the system and this will tell if these Items are available to be claimed on the day of the visit. This is when further appointments are booked for patients on the findings of what is available to be claimed i.e. Health Assessments, Care Plans, MHCP, ATSI Health Assessments … The list goes on. With the use of the USB, it only takes a few minutes to see what has not been claimed, the patient is absolutely none-the-wiser and leaves with another appointment card based on the findings of what Plans can be claimed at next appointment. These patients are mostly elderly and have no idea what the GP is doing. They just think GP is extremely thorough.


      • I’m interested to hear how you got this information, how often it happens or if this is based on a single case? Note that billing information is also available by simply ringing Medicare. And, as Thinus says, fraud should be reported.


      • Would be helpful to comment under the right thread. Anyway – I am well aware of the dongles and it certainly takes more than just a few minutes to use it for the purpose that you describe. I would also think that it would be near impossible to do this during a normal consultation without the patient noticing, wondering what you are doing and asking why you have just spent a third or more of the consult on fiddling with the computer.

        Like Edwin I am curious on what you are factually basing this on – personal experience, hearsay, or what ?

        By the way Edwin – my PCEHR posts must have caught some attention – I have a group of senior Health Department people coming to see me next week to discus my comments about the system. Should be interesting


  • The reason for the hospital patient being sent back to the GP to obtain a referral to another of the hospitals specialists? Double-dipping. The GP referral allows the patients treatment to be bulk-billed to the Commonwealth. Yet the hospital is already receiving state funding for the same public patient treatment. Who knows why it’s permitted to continue? If I double-dipped I’d be prosecuted immediately!


  • Surely I wrote some of these comments? The other idiocy that comes up from time to time is writing a referral to a tertiary hospital pain clinic- the longest wait time- and 12 months later, with no appointment for my patient, getting a letter back from the hospital telling me that as my referral has now expired, they ask that I re-refer the patient! who probably goes back to the bottom of the queue.
    I have sent a few snotty letters to hospitals as a result!
    It always seems that those who make the policies and the medicare rules are never actual clinicians working in the field….


  • While I sympathise in respect of the red tape hurdles, they should be recognised (while they exist) as part of the system and planned for accordingly so that patients do not have to wait. We need to recognise that one of the costs of our health treatments is the cost of the time we spend receiving it. The patient’s time is just as valuable as the doctor’s (sometimes more, sometimes less) but in many medical transactions only the doctor’s time is financially recognised. In many practices there is an assumption that the customer will wait to suit the service supplier’s needs. It is hard to think of other commercial environments where this would be tolerated.


    • I am comfortable with the principle if:
      a. We could likewise penalise every patient who rocks up late or does not rock up at all
      b. We start charging every patient who take longer than their booked time for every minute extra spent – will off course never happen as they are mostly concessional visits that we are already giving a 30-40% discount by bulkbilling their services.

      Tell you what – how about we start charging like the lawyers – I reckon I could stay on time if the 5hours a month I spend to the authority line, the reading of all those letters and results, etc, etc could be billed by the minute. The question is though – would you be willing to pay me what a proper market related price for my services?

      Doubt it


    • Thanks for your feedback John. Can you give us an example of how we should plan for red tape hurdles? Our patient’s time is important and I’m open to suggestions!


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