Disruption by the after-hours industry and why you should care

After-hours medical home visiting services are important for patients and their doctors but we need an ethical and sustainable model that integrates with day-time services.

Doctors and professional medical bodies including the RACGP and AMA regularly express concerns about healthcare models that compromise on quality, fragment and duplicate care or fail to use scarce health dollars efficiently.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce has voiced similar concerns in relation to some of the home visiting services. In its recently published interim report the taskforce notes that the growth in claiming of urgent attendances by after-hours medical services is showing an increase far in excess of population growth.

The taskforce believes the services often interfere with continuity of care by the patient’s regular GP and represent low value care. It is not convinced that the rise of urgent after-hours home visits has had a significant impact on hospital emergency department services.

Inappropriate use of funding?

Indeed, there are indications that funding for after-hours medical services in the community may be used inappropriately. For example, I have received reports from some of these services delivering repeat prescriptions after-hours to patients’ homes. The care is often not provided by GPs but by less qualified practitioners.

An after-hours visit classified as ‘urgent’ attracts a Medicare rebate which can be $100 more compared with the same service provided at a GP practice. This has created a lucrative standalone after-hours industry which doesn’t always represent value for money for the taxpayer.

No reduction of emergency department presentations
The assumption that increased provision of urgent, after-hours consultations (MBS item 597) would reduce demand for emergency departments has not been confirmed. Source: AFP

Let’s look at the ACT: since the arrival of the bulk-billing National Home Doctor Service in the capital, home visits rose from 1588 in 2013–14 to 20,556 in the previous financial year.

According to the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce, Medicare benefits paid for urgent after-hours services have increased by 170 per cent, from $90.8m in 2010–11 to $245.9m in 2015–16, whilst benefits paid for normal GP services increased by 27 per cent.

There is no reasonable explanation for the exponential growth. The taskforce is of the opinion that MBS funding should continue to be available for home visits in the after-hours period but has made some sensible recommendations to improve the model.

After-hours lobby 

The response from the after-hours lobby speaks for itself: The National Association for Medical Deputising Services started an aggressive lobbying campaign to ‘protect home visits’.

Although several after-hours services left the corporate lobby group – including the Canberra After-Hours Locum Medical Service, the Melbourne-based DoctorDoctor service and the Western Australian Deputising Medical Service – the campaign continues to target consumers and politicians.

The actions of the lobby group and some after-hours services have raised eyebrows. Mass media advertising and marketing campaigns via television, newspapers, and billboards will drive unnecessary use and should be avoided. Similarly bookings for after-hours deputising services during daytime hours should stop.

A sensible solution

It’s not rocket science: As after-hours home deputising services do not offer comprehensive GP care, they should only be used when a patient’s usual GP or general practice is not available and the patient has a health concern that cannot wait until the following day.

It is time to use these Medicare-funded services wisely – when genuinely needed, not wanted or promoted.

The doctor will see you… never. Issues with online referral services.

There are many benefits of online health services and they can complement traditional face-to-face GP visits. But there are also examples that raise questions.

The young woman was in tears. When she came in she had initially asked for a referral to a surgeon for a breast augmentation. During the conversation it turned out that her partner had made it clear her breasts were too small.

We ended up having a chat about relationships and body image. At the end of the consultation she decided she needed some time to think things over and talk to good friends, and that she would come back if she needed further assistance.

The problem with online referrals

At first sight, the Qoctor website seems an easy, convenient online medical service that provides sick certificates and referrals.

The site tells visitors: “(…) we understand that a well person who simply needs a letter to see a specialist should be able to get one without requiring a GP consultation.”

I’d like to challenge that. The woman in the example above was well but did she need a referral to undergo an expensive procedure that would change her body?

There are many issues with a system that allows access to specialist care without a review by a primary care doctor. Unnecessary referrals, increased costs and further pressure on the hospital system are just the beginning.

Once a visitor has selected a specialist the system asks a few simple questions about allergies and previous surgery and there are some boxes to tick (see image). I wonder how many people will just enter through to get to the section where you pay and automatically receive the referral letter (as pdf file).

How many people will just enter through to get to the section where you pay and receive the referral letter?

Good telehealth principles

Sometimes writing referrals is a straightforward process but often it is not. What is missing here are the safeguards with regards to other management options, coordination of care, the communication between the usual doctor and specialist, and follow-up. What about whole patient care?

Interestingly the service seems to assume that – after automatically cashing in the online referral fee – the patient’s usual GP will be responsible for the follow-up if required.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has developed some common-sense principles for telehealth services, including on-demand online health services. These principles include the following:

  • On-demand telehealth services should preferably be provided by a patient’s usual GP or practice
  • On-demand telehealth services to unknown patients should only be provided when the patient’s usual practice cannot provide care for them, either in person (at the practice or by a home visit) or online, and no other general practices are physically accessible
  • Patient notes should always be sent to the patient’s usual GP or practice (with the patient’s permission). This ensures continuity of care and centralises patient records.

Commercially enticing 

I suspect that most people are aware of the risks of online health services and will consult their GP first. At the same time there will always be people who are attracted to these services because they are quick and easy. It is also commercially enticing: if you sign up for Qoctor you may win a $100 Coles Meyer gift card.

The patient testimonials on the website, which probably go against AHPRA’s advertising guidelines for regulated health services, seem positive. The question is usually: are these real testimonials?

As always with disruptive technologies there is the convenience aspect for consumers – but is bypassing the most efficient and cost-effective part of healthcare by printing out an online ticket to the expensive part in the best interest of Australians? I doubt it.

The (patient) case discussion in this blog post is fictional and based on similar consultations. Disclaimer and disclosure notice. Follow me on Twitter: @EdwinKruys.

Disruption in healthcare is happening (whether we like it or not)

Healthcare, and particularly medicine, are slow-moving beasts. This doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t happening. In fact, it’s happening at an alarming speed and doctors are grappling with a quickly expanding knowledge base.

But the highly regulated, traditional industry is vulnerable to external disruption, and we’re seeing more and more examples:

  • DIY tests like skin cancer apps and pap smears
  • Online script services
  • Skin checks at the pharmacy
  • Vaccination services outside medical practices
  • Medical tourism

The flip side of convenience

Disruption is not necessarily the same as innovation. Disruptive services or products are simpler and more convenient to use, but their quality is often poorer.

In healthcare, the risk of disruption is that it affects health outcomes. It may lead to fragmentation and loss of opportunistic screening. I’ll give two examples:

Example 1:  More providers does not equal better care

A busy family doesn’t have the time to visit the doctor and decides to use convenient online health services. As a result they hardly ever visit their family doctor, and if they do, their doctor does not have the complete picture as more health providers are involved in the care.

Example 2: Convenience does not equal safety

Women doing their own pap smears at home may take incorrect samples. Although avoiding the ‘stirrups’ in the doctor’s office is a big plus, the risk of avoiding an expert examination is that things get missed.

The way forward

Disruption in healthcare is happening, whether we like it or not. “Successful entrepreneurs naturally look at opportunities in terms of the jobs they can do for customers,” say the authors of this article. Although it is unlikely that the doctor can be replaced by technology, certain aspects of the healthcare process can.

I believe there are 3 ways the healthcare industry should respond to external disruption:

  1. Continue to listen to health consumers
  2. Develop our own disruption processes
  3. Communicate the strengths and qualities of our services

Marcus Tan, GP and CEO of HealthEngine said in Australian Doctor magazine: “GPs are ideally suited to lead this cultural shift. GPs are highly skilled in managing risk and uncertainty, and are well equipped to make the leaps required to innovate.”

Indeed, if we don’t do it ourselves, others will.