Central Coast doctor, Elly Warren, has backed calls from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) for more help for GPs ahead of the rollout of COVID-19 booster shots from November 8, amid fears the region’s medical practices will be overwhelmed.
Warren, who works at Yerin Aboriginal Health Services at Wyong one day a week and is working on a research project on ways to improve breast screening participation for Aboriginal women, said she was concerned that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of the Coast was still 25 per cent behind the rest of the population in getting doubly vaccinated.
She urged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people who have yet to be vaccinated to contact Yerin as a matter of urgency so they can be directed to the best outlet for vaccination ahead of the booster rollout.
As far as the booster program itself is concerned, she said more financial assistance and clearer communication were vital to its success so GPs in the north of the region aren’t swamped.
“We’ve been working so hard to get the vaccination roll-out done over the past few months,” Warren said.
“There has been a huge strain on general practices since the pandemic started – constantly adapting to changing guidelines to keep the community safe.
“So much extra staffing and infrastructure has been needed – everyone has been running Saturday and evening clinics to keep up.
“As we approach the end of a very long, hard year of COVID testing and vaccination, the beginning of the booster rollout on November 8 is going to add even more strain.”
Warren said GPs were disappointed that remuneration for booster shots will be lower than doctors have been getting for doses one and two.
“We are losing a practice incentive payment-which has been important to cover extra infrastructure costs,” she said.
“So much cost has been incurred by general practices in hiring tents and marquees to cater for vaccination and hiring extra staff to cope.
“Most practices I have spoken with have barely been breaking even during the rollout.
“They are facing a financial blowout if they don’t get more funding.
“We need that COVID-19 Vaccine General Practice Incentive of $10 to continue for the booster rollout.”
Warren said administration costs at practices had skyrocketed with extra staff needed to put in place recall systems where patients can be reminded to have their booster shot on time and to field multiple phone calls from confused and concerned patients.
Better communication is also key, with practices given no firm dates for beginning booster rollout.
“We’ve been given a starting date of November 8 but the details are patchy,” she said.
“Most of our information has come through the media and not through formal networks.
“Many practices have doses of Pfizer which will expire on November 5 and need advice on whether we can use those early.
“We should be starting to do it now but have had no word from government that it is OK.”
Warren said with GPs administering hundreds of thousands of vaccinations to date, other basic medical services such as cancer screening and heart and lung health have suffered.
“Some practices have had to prioritise vaccines over general care,” she said.
RACGP welcomed a package of new measures rolled out by the Federal Government last week but said more needs to be done to ease the burden on GPs.
The measures include: the national network of Primary Health Networks (PHNs) providing GPs responsible for supervising COVID-19-positive patients with pulse oximeters, which are small devices usually placed on a person’s fingertip to measure oxygen saturation; a new Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item of $25 to provide support to general practices for the additional cost of treating COVID-19-positive patients face-to-face while maintaining COVID-19-safe infection prevention and controls; and the operation of 150 GP-led respiratory clinics being extended to June 30, 2022.
But RACGP President, Karen Price, said cases were certain to spike as restrictions ease.
“Our hospitals are already under enormous pressure, including caring for unvaccinated patients suffering from severe effects of COVID-19,” she said.
“So, it’s vital we do everything we can to keep patients out of hospital and that includes caring for people with COVID-19 in the community where possible.
“We must make sure we have the right systems in place to help the growing numbers of patients who will contract the virus and require careful monitoring.”
She said it was vital GPs were kept in the loop.
“We need to be told right away when one of our patients tests positive to COVID-19, not days or weeks later,” she said.
While the new MBS item will help offset the cost of having controls in place and the extension of GP-led respiratory clinics was welcome, it was disappointing the new measures do not include any new funding for practices delivering boosters, she said.
“Instead, (these) will be funded at the same rate as the second dose but without the COVID-19 Vaccine General Practice Incentive of $10, which is paid to eligible practices where the patient received both a first dose and second dose at the same practice,” she said.
“If practices did have access to what we call ‘Level C’ Medicare rebates, which are for consultations lasting at least 20 minutes, for these booster vaccines – that would make a real difference.
“Extra funding often allows practices to run additional vaccination clinics, including on weekends and after-hours.”