Has Australian general practice moved one step closer to the British NHS?

In 2019, the Department of Health, via its practice incentive scheme, will not only start setting the key performance indicators of general practice but also further tighten its grip on practice data. It is not unlikely that the Department’s strategy will create the same issues the National Health Service is currently encountering: loss of patient-centeredness of care, unreasonable KPIs and low doctor morale.

The redesign of the Practice Incentive Program (PIP) has been in the cards for a while. The introduction of a new quality improvement (QI) payment system was deferred for 12 months in May 2018 because of concerns that it was not fit for purpose.

Central role of PHNs

If it goes ahead in May 2019, the impact of the new scheme will be significant. The big change will likely be that Primary Health Networks (PHNs) become exclusive “QI providers” for general practice. This means that they will extract, analyse and store practice data and present GPs with benchmark reports. Many PHNs have already started collecting data in anticipation of the changes.

To be eligible for quality improvement incentive payments, practices will have to demonstrate to PHNs that their performance is on par with the Department’s KPIs. Although analysis and benchmarking of clinical data are becoming increasingly important to improve patient care, there are many issues with the proposed PIP overhaul.

Initially, there was talk about more organisations becoming QI providers, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the Improvement Foundation, but, according to Medical Observer, it looks like there will be no profession-led alternative to the PHN model and, as a result, practices will not be given a choice of QI providers.

General practice is at risk of gradually losing control over its quality improvement processes, which will no doubt leave many grassroots GPs dismayed.

Professional buy-in?

The main issue with the scheme is related to professional buy-in. The Department of Health has gone through the usual process of consulting the profession, but it has always been clear that the PIP redesign was going to occur regardless of the opinion of GP groups.

The Department may claim in its communications that the KPIs are supported by the various professional bodies, but the level of engagement, trust and satisfaction with the new QI system will be low for various reasons.

First, this is an example of a top-down government solution, largely designed by the Department of Health. As we have seen with the My Health Record and Health Care Homes, this approach usually creates just as many problems as it is trying to fix.

Similarly, there has been a lack of engagement with the e-health PIP (ePIP) scheme, which requires practices to upload shared health summaries to the My Health Record to remain eligible for incentive payments or ePIP. This may have given the Department a countable number of uploads, but there is no evidence to suggest that it has improved meaningful use of the My Health Record or quality of care in general practice.

Weak evidence

In the PIP redesign process, only payments to practices have survived. For example, the aged care incentive payment to GPs providing care to patients in residential aged care facilities will be scrapped. This incentive is worth $3000–$5000 per doctor. Many have argued that it is incomprehensible that funding benefitting aged care is removed at a time when residential aged care facilities need more support to provide the medical care required.

By stopping these service payments to individual doctors, the incentives will be one step further removed from those who are responsible for the actual quality improvement activities. Again, this does not inspire confidence in the Department’s new QI system.

Measuring performance against KPIs in combination with performance payments will almost certainly create new problems. Quality indicators used by governments around the world are often easy to measure isolated parameters that have limited valuefor complex systems such as general practice.

The evidence to support financial incentives is weak, and the British Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) pay-for-performance system has illustrated what can go wrong: QOF has not improved care but did result in the loss of the patient-centredness of care and has created a significant decrease in doctor morale.

No funding priority

The new QI PIP will be subsidised by a shift of funding from other PIP and SIP incentives — which has been labeled as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by the Australian Medical Association. In 2016, $21 million were removed from the PIP budget to partially fund the Health Care Home trials. The last budget announcements made it clear that there will be no increase in PIP funding in the near future. The PIP scheme, introduced in the 1990s, has never been indexed.

The Department of Health has not yet provided clarity on what the PIP scheme will look like beyond May 2019. This lack of transparency about long term planning creates uncertainty for practices. Although the expectations will start off low, it is to be expected that the Department will adjust the KPIs upwards over time, wanting more for less.

One of the PIP eligibility criteria for practices is accreditation against the RACGP’s Standards for general practices, and it will be interesting to see if upcoming changes to the PIP scheme will affect the percentage of practices that take the effort to go through the accreditation process.

Data extraction

Finally, general practice is not only facing loss of control of quality improvement but is also about to miss out on an opportunity to become custodians of its clinical data. Although the QI PIP data will be extracted from GP practices, it will likely be managed and controlled by PHNs and other government agencies, such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

When the government defunded the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) study in 2016, general practice lost its most important longitudinal source of data. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what will happen with the QI PIP data when, in a future reform cycle, PHNs or other government agencies involved are subject to funding cuts or cease to exist altogether.

The Department of Health’s underlying thinking seems to be that the responsibility for quality and data should be taken away from the profession, even though the government’s own data governance practices don’t always inspire confidence.

Professional response

The department should have given professional organisations the responsibility to execute a mutually agreed strategy, acceptable to all parties, including custodianship of data for quality improvement purposes.

Our peak bodies are working hard behind the scenes to negotiate the best possible outcome. It is more important than ever for the profession to work through any differences and present a united front. The question remains, can we stem the tide of increasing departmental control or has general practice definitely moved one step closer to the NHS?

This article was originally published in MJA Insight.

It’s not just the My Health Record we should be concerned about

It’s often been said, the Australian My Health Record is not a finished project. It is evolving and has, indeed, lots of potential to improve and streamline patient care. Sadly, the privacy issues that have haunted the project for years still seem to be unresolved. And when it comes to secondary use of patient data, there’s more to come from a different direction.

Back in 2013 I wrote this in a blog post about the My Health Record, then called the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record or PCEHR:

“The PCEHR Act 2012 states that the data in the PCEHR can be used for law enforcement purposes, indemnity insurance purposes for health care providers, research, public health purposes and ‘other purposes authorised by law’. This is far from reassuring. There are many grey areas and unanswered questions. There are too many agendas. The PCEHR should first be a useful clinical tool to improve patient care.”

Five years later and there are still ambiguities about when, how and for what reason law enforcement agencies and other non-medical parties can access the national My Health Record system. This should have been crystal clear by now. Here’s is what I posted in 2015:

“(…) at the moment the information in the PCEHR may be used by the Government for data mining, law enforcement purposes and ‘other purposes authorised by law’, for up to 130 years, even after a patient or provider has opted out. (…) The legal framework should be reviewed, and any changes must be agreed upon by consumers and clinicians.”

When asked about this issue at yesterday’s Press Club AMA president Dr Tony Bartone indicated that he is prepared to push for legislative amendments to improve the confidence of Australians in the My Health Record.

I was glad to hear this. I’m all for amendments of the My Health Record legislation but at the same time the Department of Health is on a journey to get its hands on GP patient data – and this is unlikely to change.

For example, the Department of Health is preparing a new data extraction scheme, to be introduced in May 2019. To remain eligible for practice incentive payments GP clinics have to agree that de-identified patient data will be extracted from their clinical software by, perhaps, Primary Health Networks. From there the data may flow to, possibly, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the organisation responsible for the secondary use of data in the My Health Record.

If this scheme goes ahead, government organisations will begin to take over data and quality control of general practice. The argument will be that it is in the interest of the health of the nation. Perhaps it’s my well-worn tin foil hat, but I have a sneaking suspicion what I will be blogging about in the years to come.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

The Practice Incentive Program is shrinking but the government expects new quality improvement systems and general practice data.

Most GPs were underwhelmed, to say the least, when they heard about the changes (read: cuts) to the Practice Incentive Program (PIP). Cutting the funding for nursing home visits is a hard sell for the Department of Health and the Federal Health Minister.

This is the wrong message at a time when there are more elderly people with complex chronic health problems in need of appropriate medical care, preferably in the community.

I have heard about various ‘fixes’, including improvements to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) schedule (good idea) and introducing nurse practitioners (not necessarily a good idea) – but nothing has been confirmed and it all sounds a bit like policy on the run, not a planned and coordinated strategy.

Quality improvement

The scrapped incentives, including the aged care service incentive payment (SIP), will be used to set up a quality incentive payment system (QI–PIP) in GP practices. There are certainly arguments for supporting an enhanced quality improvement system in general practice, but was it the right decision to sacrifice the aged care payments?

We need practice data to review and improve patient care. I agree with the RACGP position that the development of a QI–PIP should assist general practices to undertake quality improvement activities.

However, the RACGP has also indicated that it will not support measuring performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) or so-called ‘quality indicators’ in combination with performance payments. There is just not enough evidence that this will significantly improve care in the long-run, but there is evidence of harm, including detrimental effects on the doctor–patient relationship and practitioner burnout.

Although we have had verbal assurance from the Department of Health that the new QI–PIP – to be introduced in May next year – will not be a pay-for-performance system, the longer-term plans are unclear. This has raised many concerns and it will hinder business planning for general practices.

Data deal

In return for the quality improvement payments, practices will be required to hand over their patient data to Primary Health Networks (PHNs) under the current proposal. From there, the data will flow to other agencies but – just like the My Health Record data – we have not yet heard for what purposes it will be used, and what the implications will be for individual GPs within practices. Many GPs have indicated that they are not prepared to hand over data to their PHN or the Government.

Another big issue is the eHealth Practice Incentive Payment (ePIP), which was originally introduced to strengthen practice IT systems, but is now used to make practices – often practice nurses – upload shared health summaries to the My Health Record. As we are moving to a My Health Record opt-out system later this year, the time may have come to review the ePIP and make it more meaningful for general practice.

Lastly, the practice incentive funding was introduced in the 1990s and has never been indexed. In 2016, $21 million was earmarked for removal and used to partially fund the Health Care Home trials.

It all sounds like another example of the Government wanting more for less. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

This article was originally published on newsGP.

Are we really expected to sign these Medicare Local contracts? (video)

Medicare Local contracts
Image: pixabay.com

Our after hours contract with the state government was easy to understand and five pages long. It said when we had to be open and how much funding we would receive, and it worked fine.

Now Medicare Locals have taken over the funding. We are still providing the same service but the contract has grown to 37 pages! Our management team had to engage a lawyer to make sense of it.

Let’s have a close look at (yet) another contract Medicare Locals have recently sent to GP practices. This is the one for practice incentive payments. These so-called PIP payments will be paid by Medicare Locals if practices meet certain targets, e.g. providing an x-amount of after hours care, using electronic health records, or providing asthma & diabetes services.

Four examples

I have picked four clauses from the contract, but there’s plenty more. Here we go:

It is a requirement that 30% of patients are bulk billed (after hours). If this target is not met, no bulk billing payment will be made (Appendix)

Many practices cannot afford to bulk bill, even the government-funded super clinics have acknowledged this. The value of Medicare rebates is dropping and the government will not increase the rebate this year. I wonder how Medicare Locals expect GPs, nurses and receptionists to work cheaper after hours, especially under the current Fair Work act. Try to get a plumber after hours for less than in-hours fees…

The ML may at any time require the Contractor to remove any of its Personnel from performing any of the Services (5.3)

I had to read this twice. The Medicare Local wants the authority to make us fire our GPs, nurses, receptionists or managers from providing services to our patients? Please leave the responsibility for providing the service with health care providers, and let Medicare Locals provide the funding.

Where the ML determines that an amendment to this agreement is necessary (…) the Contractor will be deemed to have agreed to such amendment to this agreement (19.6 )

In other words, if the Medicare Local wants to change to contract or the fees they can do so, and GPs will have to accept this? Talking about a one-sided contract…

The contractor must not publish any publication or otherwise make any public communication in relation to the Services without the prior written approval of the ML (17.3( 2))

(No comment.)

Conclusion

Contracts like this are dangerous because they have many negative consequences. Here are three reasons why:

  1. They increase distrust
  2. They increase costs (practice managers time, lawyers fees, Medicare Local staff, more reports etc)
  3. They are a risk to the viability of GP services to the community

To move forward I suggest that Medicare Locals withdraw the contracts and offer us a simple, understandable and fair 5-page document instead. Busy doctors and nurses really haven’t got time for this.