Many people are still getting over the disappointment of Medicare Locals. I get that. Although some MLs were able to make a difference, too many were not. The new Primary Health Networks (PHNs) may be a different kettle of fish. One thing is for sure: they are here for the long haul.
There is an enormous opportunity for PHNs to add value where they support quality primary healthcare services to the community. For that reason the RACGP is keen to work with the new organisations. I believe there are at least three areas where grassroots support from local PHNs can make a big difference.
The first area is relationship building and teamwork. We all know there are too many silos and tribes in healthcare. On the other hand, long-term relationships positively influence knowledge exchange, understanding and trust.
Where possible, health providers should be freed up to have the option to discuss clinical care with each other. This is important all for health professionals, and even more so for those working in rural and remote areas.
We should ensure that non-clinicians do not get in the way of effective inter-collegial communication. For example, referral letters have to contain the necessary information to allow the next health provider to do their job properly, but we must avoid overly bureaucratic referral rules. A clinical override mechanism of these rules must always be available.
PHNs could assist, for example, with developing shared clinical priorities and organising site visits, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and conferences that cross disciplinary and organisational boundaries.
Continuity of care
The second area is improving continuity of care. This is not a catchphrase, but a crucial element of general practice with numerous proven long-term health benefits. Unfortunately it seems this principle is often sacrificed in new initiatives and models for the sake of short-term results, convenience or commercial interests.
It is helpful to distinguish the three types of continuity of care, as explained by Haggerty et al: informational continuity (sharing data), management continuity (sharing a consistent approach) and relational continuity (fostering an ongoing therapeutic relationship).
Electronic health records will assist with informational continuity, but not necessarily with management continuity and relational continuity.
“New models of care should not further fragment care
There is ample evidence that comprehensive, continuous care by GPs results in improved patient health outcomes and satisfaction. Continuity of care is cost-effective and reduces both elective and emergency hospital admissions.
GPs play a key role in keeping people out of hospital. It is important however that hospital avoidance projects help to build capacity, facilitate access in primary care and respect the principle of continuity of care.
New integrated models of care should carefully be evaluated to make sure they don’t do the opposite and fragment care thereby negatively impacting on health outcomes – often with the best intentions. PHNs can play a big role here.
Data exchange and communication
A third area where PHNs should assist general practice is electronic data exchange and communication. Because of its central position in primary care, general practice is the natural collection point of clinical information. Direct, secure, electronic communication between GPs, specialists, community pharmacists and allied health providers is beneficial for optimal patient care, but remains problematic in many regions.
“Delayed information from hospitals is still one of the biggest problems
Delayed or absent correspondence from hospitals to referring doctors is still one of the biggest problems for GPs who are frequently trying to deal with returning patients without any information from the hospital.
All necessary information should be supplied in hospital discharge summaries, and it should not be left to the GP or practice staff to chase up any information from the hospital.
General practitioners need to ensure their referrals are of sufficient quality, consistent with RACGP standards, and useful for practitioners who continue the patient care in different settings of the health system. That means the referral information must be complete, accurate and timely.
Hospital referral criteria may require additional, locally agreed-on information, but extensive extra information (such as patient questionnaires) is the responsibility of the requesting institutions, and GPs should not be made responsible for its collection and supply.
There is room for improvement of communication between GPs. Getting the different healthcare computer systems to talk to each other is a big issue in many parts of the country. This is problematic as Australia has a mobile population. Low-cost software solutions such as GP2GP, used in New Zealand and the UK, could solve this.
The MyHealthRecord (formerly PCEHR) is, due to its many technical and medicolegal issues, not yet widely accepted as a reliable clinical tool and we see more alternative, locally developed e-health solutions in the near future.
In conclusion there are substantial opportunities for PHNs in supporting and adequately resourcing general practice and its interactions with other parts of the health system. To quote the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC): “We believe that strengthened primary health care services in the community, building on the vital role of general practice, should be the ‘first contact’ for providing care for most health needs of Australian people.”
This article was originally published in The Medical Republic.