How safe is the patient safety net?

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. Perth GP Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith proposes a change to the PBS safety net to protect vulnerable patients.

“One thing that my patients with chronic disease on lower incomes find difficult,” says Dr Garton-Smith, “is that they have to pay for all their medications until they hit the safety net. Even if people are only paying the lower rate for scripts, it adds up if they are on a number of medications. I have seen it affect compliance at the beginning of the year when they have to decide which medications they need most.”

The general patient safety net threshold is currently $1,453.90, and the concessional threshold $366. When someone or their family’s total co-payments reach this amount, they only have to pay the concessional co-payment amount of $6.10 until the end of the calendar year. Concessional card holders get standard PBS scripts for free after they reach the threshold.

The PBS co-payment and safety net amounts, effective from 1 January 2015:

General patient co-payment: $37.70

Concessional co-payment: $6.10

General safety net threshold: $1,453.90

Concessional safety net threshold: $366.00.

A safer solution

Garton-Smith: “Loading the costs into a few months of the year and then being free the rest of the year for concessional card holders is concerning. My patients tell me the safety net is supposed to help them but doesn’t – until it kicks in. For someone who has diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, arthritis, reflux, depression and sometimes osteoporosis, asthma or COPD, you can see the impact. This is not an unusual scenario.”

“It would be so much easier if the cost could be spread out over the year for people likely to hit the safety net. It would also prevent people attempting to stock-pile at the end of the year. I realise most people don’t get more than 5 scripts a month but those who need to are often managing serious health problems.”

Medication adherence 

Research has shown that when co-payments for medications increase, more people stop their treatment. This includes essential preventive medications, and as a result more visits to the doctor and hospital may be required.

Associate professor Michael Ortiz said in Australian Prescriber: “Some have argued that greater cost sharing does not undermine overall patient health because patients facing rising costs will reduce their consumption of perceived non-essential medications more than their consumption of essential drugs. However, ‘preventive’ drugs are different, because not all patients understand the long-term benefits of taking medicines for conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia.”

“Some of my patients need to delay filling scripts they see as less essential

Garton-Smith: “A patient I have seen needs to buy more than ten medications every month at a cost of $85. Sometimes there are extra costs, for example if he needs antibiotics. On a single disability pension he gets $840.20 per fortnight, so approximately 5% of his income is spent on scripts until he reaches the safety net threshold, generally by May. Even though he gets a lot of prescriptions filled just before the end of December, he usually needs to delay filling scripts that he sees as less essential at the start of the year.”

Professor Michael Ortiz in Australian Prescriber: “The current approach to PBS savings is that the Government takes most of the cost savings, but increases co-payments and safety net thresholds each year in line with inflation. Increasing co-payments reduces medication adherence and ultimately may compromise the care of some patients.”

Thanks to Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith for the topic suggestion.

Is your organisation ready for social media?

Social media is here to stay. A lot of registrars and young doctors have one or more social media accounts, and I have yet to meet a medical student who is not on Facebook. Patients are already sharing online (health) information via Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts – so sooner or later health professionals will need to decide whether or not to participate.

Potential benefits

Social media is increasingly used for medical education, and sharing knowledge and information such as tips, resources, literature and links. It’s also useful to build an online community. Clinics can share health information and other practical information.

Social media is more interactive than a website and you can reach a wider audience in real-time. Another benefit is the value of health promotion and lifting the profile of a medical practice or organisation. I’d like to mention the use of blogs, pictures and videos. I find they are a great way to communicate a message, and I use my social media accounts to let my followers know when I’ve posted something new.

Make the most of social media

Organisations need to be prepared to put aside time to manage their online presence, and there is no easy way out here. It takes time to post useful material and interact with others. Social media is a two-way street and not just another promotional channel. If you use social media for branding or promotional purposes only, you may lose followers.

Your online presence should have a consistent approach. Too many organisations set up a Facebook account without first developing a clearly defined strategy. It is recommended to take some time to plan and figure out the purpose of the social media campaign, which medium to focus on, and how to keep it sustainable and current. This usually requires a motivated person within the organisation.

Preparation is key, and implementing a social media policy should be part of the preparation. Some things to include in the policy are, for example, how to respond to negative feedback and/or complaints received via social media; and how to comply with AHPRA regulations.

The AMA has a useful document that outlines the risks. I also felt that the social media workshops organised by MDA National are an excellent way to become familiar with the common pitfalls.

Is social media for you?

Due to the time commitment, and the effort it takes to set up and maintain social media accounts, it may not be ideal for everyone.

For those who want to contribute to online health promotion or interact and share health information with their patients or other health professionals, social media is not without risks, but it can be an effective tool if used wisely.

This article appeared in MDA’s Defence Update in April 2014. Original title: ‘Social media in modern medicine’.