Who is the real winner in the latest stoush between pharmacists and doctors?

Last week a state Pharmacy Guild president made a few negative comments about general practice. I thought it was neither here nor there, but what happened next was interesting.

I could not find the original column (admittedly I didn’t look very hard) so I can’t verify his exact words but apparently, he said that increased funding for GPs will only incentivise five-minute ‘turnstile’ medicine.

Most GPs would not have read or been aware of the column until, on the eighth of February, Australian Doctor Magazine, owned by the Australian Doctor Group (ADG), posted an article on their website titled “Pharmacy Guild says GPs working ‘turnstile operations’ filling time-slots with easy patients.”

Then all hell broke loose. There were 170 comments on the article from mostly angry GPs.

A few days later, on the eleventh of February, Pharmacy News published this piece: “Guild takes aim at GPs who favour wealthy, healthy patients”. 

Interestingly, Pharmacy News is also owned by ADG.

Then the response came. On the thirteenth of February a reply penned by the RACGP president was published. And you guessed it, that same day Australian Doctor posted: “Turnstile, cream-skim medicine? RACGP hits back at Pharmacy Guild.”

The ADG publications got hundreds of clicks and views of their website content out of the latest stoush between pharmacists and doctors.

Good on them, one could argue. But hang on, there’s more to it. The ADG website explains how it works:

“We know that GPs are increasingly time-poor and less reliant on [pharmaceutical] sales reps,” says Bryn McGeever, Managing Director of Australian Doctor Group. “They’re looking elsewhere for information.”

“While readership of medical print publications remains strong, digital channels are becoming increasingly popular with almost eight in 10 GPs now reading online medical publications monthly.”

“In recognition of this continuing shift in GP behaviour, Australian Doctor Group last week launched AccessPLUS, a bespoke digital sales channel designed to fill the space left behind as rep engagement continues to fall.”

And the real winner is….

It is sad, but not surprising, that the medical media are fuelling the tensions within primary care. Of course, like other media, ADG is just doing its job. I do wonder how many GPs and pharmacists are aware that they are the product on sale here.

I have had my fair share of altercations with the Pharmacy Guild – but it’s a road to nowhere. I prefer to listen to people like pharmacist Debbie Rigbie, who rightly says, “We must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.”

It’s time to cut the red tape

It had taken a year to organise the required paperwork to make the move from the Netherlands, and finally I was here, about to start my job in a remote hospital.

However, the manager on the other side of the desk had other ideas. She looked at me over her glasses and shook her head. I wasn’t allowed to work, she said, because my Medicare provider number would take another month to come through.

Of course, this was just the beginning. After a few years working in the bush, I was thrilled to qualify for a permanent Australian residence visa. But first I had to pass the international English language test — again.

“G’day mate, do you really need me to come to the big smoke?” I asked a clerk at some department over the phone. “I’m flat out looking after this mob in the back of Bourke. I passed that exam ages ago, before I came to the Lucky Country. Surely me Strine hasn’t got worse since I’ve been here. Crikey, the rellies back home reckon I have a dinky-di Aussie accent.”

Needless to say, I had to sit the English test again.

Red tape bugbears

This was a decade ago, but things haven’t got any better. The GPs Down Under (GPDU) Facebook group, a new, quickly growing online community of Australian GPs and registrars, listed their ‘red tape bugbears‘ earlier this month.

The amount of time and energy GPs waste filling out forms and jumping through bureaucratic hoops is gobsmacking.

One GP recently posted on the GPDU Facebook page: “For practices employing a new rural doctor, there are at least 14 different forms across Commonwealth and State jurisdictions. Some have to be completed online, some need to be scanned, some mailed — yes, with a stamp. And some faxed.”

Hospital bureaucracy is also a big bugbear for many GPs. For example, in Queensland the public hospitals have an extensive referral ‘criteria’ for each department. GP referrals that don’t tick their boxes – often checked by non-medical staff – are simply refused.

One orthopaedic outpatient department doesn’t accept a referral until GPs have faxed a completed three-page ‘hip and knee questionnaire’.

Other health professionals can also add to the GPs’ burden when they selectively take over parts of our job under the notion of helping to reduce our workload.

But it doesn’t always work out that way as one GP on the GPDU site recently highlighted when she told of how her local pharmacy happily manages her patients’ warfarin doses, but only as long as the INR is within a safe range.

“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,” she posted.

Knee-jerk reaction

Red tape is often a knee-jerk reaction to a problem and not usually the best solution.

An estimated 25,000 patient consultations are lost every month while doctors are waiting for PBS Authority call centre operators to answer the phone. Meanwhile, our Medicare-funded sick certificate ceremony is estimated to cost the Australian economy $3 billion a year.

It’s time we did something about it.

Collaboration with other professions and organisations is more important than ever. If we help hospitals solve some of their outpatient department problems, our workflow will improve too. GPs need to negotiate innovative solutions that are mutually beneficial and acceptable. Building relationships, communicating and networking are the key to success.

We are in an ideal position to show leadership. This means we have to organise ourselves better, learn to be good followers, and support those who are trying to build bridges, including our peak organisations. No doubt we will occasionally have to compromise and, in some instances, lift our game.

I realise this is not easy in the current climate of cuts and freezes, but if we fail to do this, others will continue to take control of primary care. I love Australian general practice – it’s a great profession and the reason why I came to Australia. But we must protect what’s good and make it future-proof.

My call to action to colleagues, the colleges and the AMA is simple: please help and make things easier.

This article was originally published in Australian Doctor Magazine.