Systems for the management of respiratory disease in primary care - an international series: Australia

Nicholas Glasgow
Primary Care Respiratory Journal: Journal of the General Practice Airways Group 2008, 17 (1): 19-25

INTRODUCTION: Australia has a complex health system with policy and funding responsibilities divided across federal and state/territory boundaries and service provision split between public and private providers. General practice is largely funded through the federal government. Other primary health care services are provided by state/territory public entities and private allied health practitioners. Indigenous health services are specifically funded by the federal government through a series of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. NATIONAL POLICY AND MODELS: The dominant primary health care model is federally-funded private "small business" general practices. Medicare reimbursement items have incrementally changed over the last decade to include increasing support for chronic disease care with both generic and disease specific items as incentives. Asthma has received a large amount of national policy attention. Other respiratory diseases have not had similar policy emphasis.

EPIDEMIOLOGY: Australia has a high prevalence of asthma. Respiratory-related encounters in general practice, including acute and chronic respiratory illness and influenza immunisations, account for 20.6% of general practice activity. Lung cancer is a rare disease in general practice. Tuberculosis is uncommon and most often found in people born outside of Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have higher rates of asthma, smoking and tuberculosis.

ACCESS TO CARE: Access to care is positively influenced by substantial public funding underpinning both the private and public sectors through Medicare. Access to general practice care is negatively influenced by workforce shortages, the ongoing demands of acute care, and the incremental way in which system redesign is occurring in general practice.

FACILITIES AVAILABLE: Most general practice operates from privately-owned rooms. The Australian Government requires general practice facilities to be accredited against certain standards in order for the practice to receive income from a number of government programs. These standards require GPs to have ready access to spirometry, but do not require every practice to have a spirometer.

FUTURE: The initial assessment and management of acute respiratory illnesses currently seen in primary health care settings will continue, but for this to occur the sector may have to adapt traditional workforce roles because of workforce shortages. In the longer term, climate change and migration patterns may result in changes in the epidemiology of regions and populations. The health system will continue to reform incrementally in order to deliver improved chronic disease care, including care of people with asthma and COPD. The incoming Labor Government's National Primary Health Care Strategy provides the high level policy opportunity to drive reform.

CONCLUSIONS: Australia's complex primary health care system is incrementally changing from one of exclusive acute- and episodic-care orientation in both the public and private sectors to a system that delivers effective anticipatory chronic disease care as well. From a national policy perspective, asthma has received most attention. COPD and possibly other respiratory diseases may now receive focus.

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