MBS Review: A stronger primary care system in sight?

Implementing healthcare reform in Australia is always an uphill battle. After a disappointing outcome of the much-anticipated Healthcare Homes program, some of the members of the Primary Health Care Advisory Group regrouped when they were appointed to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce.

The recommendations by the taskforce to improve the MBS are refreshing in many ways. There is a move towards strengthening GP stewardship, voluntary patient enrolment, more non face-to-face care, a simpler careplan program and increased support for home visits – which seems sensible and is addressing the frustrations of many about the current Medicare system.

It appears there are a few things missing. For example, there is no recommendation to spend more time with our patients by committing to an increase in the schedule fee of longer consultations (item numbers 36 and 44). This would have been more useful for most patient encounters than a new one-hour plus item number.

I believe the residential aged-care item numbers will need more investment when the SIP incentive ceases to exist. There is mention of outcome-based payments which requires an explanation. The lack of detail about the dollar values makes it challenging to predict the impact on general practice and primary care.

In an ideal world the recommendations could result in an invigorated, modern, patient-centred health system. However, if history repeats itself, the result will be a simple cost-saving exercise, dressed up as clinician-led, evidence-based healthcare reform.

A typical case of make it or break it.

Can we deliver high value care with one eye on the clock and the other on the screen?

Given longer consultations are associated with better health outcomes, the Medicare Benefits Schedule should be restructured to incentivise appropriate consultation time in general practice.

It is estimated that doctors are making an incorrect diagnosis in up to 20% of cases, and up to 30% of investigations may be unnecessary. It is often thought that medical knowledge and skills are the culprit, but there is another reason for the majority of medial mistakes.

Doctors need time to listen and think. General practice’s inherent time pressures, interruptions and the need to record information on computers can be distracting and cause cognitive errors. Our thinking process is also influenced by our emotions; for example, as a result of work stress or running late.

This is not rocket science and has been well documented. For example, in his New York Times bestseller, How doctors think, Harvard professor Jerome Groopman described how snap judgments and other cognitive errors by doctors can lead to medical mistakes.

In a television interview, Professor Groopman explained how over the years the consultation time gradually had to drop from 30 minutes to about 12 minutes. A doctor can’t think, he said, with one eye on the clock and the other eye on the computer screen.

Increasing complexity

In Australia and New Zealand, chronic conditions account for 85% of the total burden of disease, and a chronic disease is a contributing factor in nine out of 10 deaths. The increasing multimorbidity and complexity of care requires that doctors spend more time with their patients. Managing several medical and psychosocial problems in a 15-minute consultation is increasingly challenging for doctors and many patients.

It is not surprising that longer consultations seem to be associated with better patient outcomes. The benefits of extended consultations of 20 minutes or more for certain patient groups have also been explored overseas. More time with patients may lead to higher patient satisfaction, fewer errors and a lower volume of prescriptions, investigations, referrals and hospital presentations.

It is time to slow down. At the moment, the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) fails to recognise this growing problem as it encourages throughput. For example, seeing patients in blocks of four 15-minute appointments per hour is valued at $148.20, but two 30-minute consultations per hour is worth a total of $143.40.

Health Care Homes

Is block funding such as proposed in the Federal Government’s Health Care Homes model encouraging more time with patients? Probably not. In fact, one could argue that it incentivises less face-to-face time with the GP and more contact with nursing staff and other team members.

Our patients deserve our time. The MBS schedule could support our patients with chronic and complex health conditions by better rewarding longer GP consultations.

This article was originally published in newsGP.

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.

Brand new eHealth strategy off to a bad start

I recently participated in a webinar organised by the Department of Health. It was supposed to be a consultation about the uptake of eHealth.

It went something like this: “We want to gain feedback from GPs about how we can get you to use the eHealth. This is how we’re going to do it; we’ve already organised training and we’re kicking off after the Christmas break. But before we start this session you must know that we cannot consider other options or timeframes.”

I was speechless. Literally – as I was not allowed to speak. I could only send little text messages via the closed online question platform. I was unable to see the feedback from other online participants.

Meaningful use

For years health providers have repeatedly said, if you want to make eHealth a success please take us with you.

The government is talking about new incentive payments to practices, ‘refreshed’ training programs and opt-out instead of opt-in, but there is little mention about improvements that make health providers want to use the PCEHR (now called ‘My Health Record’).

It is concerning is that the current plan mainly encourages uploading of documents. What should be facilitated is safe and more efficient care for our patients. At the moment it seems to be all about the number of uploads to the system. I cannot help but wonder what higher level performance indicators are at work here.

Any incentive has to be effective at provider level to create behavioural change. In other words, we must encourage individual practitioners to use eHealth, not just organisations and practices.

It is no surprise that the government failed again to enlist support from the profession. In its submission to the Department of Health, the RACGP wrote:

“(…) the RACGP cannot support the proposed mandatory requirements for the uploading of a specified quota of clinical documents to My Health Record. Meaningful use is not just uploading information to My Health Record, and nor is uploading information an acceptable starting point for meaningful use. Meaningful use relates to safety, quality, communication and healthcare outcomes – not merely numbers.

Unresolved issues

E-health experts have warned that the system is still unsafe. For example, some software programs merge medication dose and instructions. Others have warned that the uploaded clinical information does not always arrive in the My Health Record database.

Then there are the unanswered medicolegal issues. As I said in MJA Insight, I would be happy if the data in My Health Record was used for other purposes such as disease surveillance or even feedback on my clinical management but, in the end, it is the patient’s record and they must have a say in it. A proper consent procedure is essential for any use of PCEHR data outside individual patient care.

It appears the  system operator is currently authorised to collect information in individual health records for law enforcement, health provider indemnity insurance cover, research and public health purposes, and as required or authorised by law. This process should be more transparent with a better explanation of what it means for both patients and providers.

Removing the need for provider participation agreements is needed as these documents are very one-sided. It is not clear to me what this will mean for the liability of organisations, practices and individual practitioners.

A failing strategy

It is challenging to have a  discussion about incentivising uptake of eHealth when there are so many unknowns. It’s like trying to sell a house that’s still being built and everyone knows there are construction issues. Pushing people to live in the house does not make it a safer or a better building.

The RACGP warns against hastily implementing incentives and advises the department to wait for the outcomes of the Primary Health Care Advisory Group review, the MBS review, and the opt-out trials which are due to start.

Once the identified problems with My Health Record have been addressed and resolved, the RACGP believes that uploading of patient information to My Health Record would be best supported by a practitioner incentive payment (SIP) or an MBS rebate.

It will be interesting to see the response from the department. I’m afraid that history will repeat itself: they’ll go full steam ahead, only to discover in one or two years time that the strategy didn’t work. What do you think?