HEALTH MATTERS: Medicare rebates for doctor visits shorter than 10 minutes will be slashed by more than half from next week.
HEALTH MATTERS: Medicare rebates for doctor visits shorter than 10 minutes will be slashed by more than half from next week.

Patients suffer financial pain for short GP visits

PATIENTS who make a quick trip to the doctor could be forced to find an extra $20 each visit, with the Medicare rebate for consultations shorter than 10 minutes to be slashed from next week.

An appointment that lasts less than 10 minutes will next week only garner a $16.95 rebate, with 10 to 20-minute appointments returning a rebate of $37.05.

Although the news has caused widespread anger and fear of a hospital "crisis", the Federal Government said the changes would improve the quality of care patients received.

A spokesman for Health Minister Sussan Ley said the changes would combat the so-called "six-minute medicine".

"Under current rules, a GP can access Medicare rebates for up to 20 minutes, even if their patient is in and out the door in six minutes," he said.

"These changes more accurately reflect the time a doctor spends with their patient and encourage longer GP consultations for better health outcomes, not 'six minute medicine'.

"This is particularly true in the case of chronic and complex medical issues."

The spokesman added that the majority of GP consultations in Australia already lasted over 10 minutes and would therefore be unaffected.

Bulk billing will also remain free for patients; although there are fears doctors will stop offering the service.

The Australian Medical Association has criticised the rebate cut, saying it would put even more pressure on the public hospital system.

The spokesman for the Health Minister said the AMA's criticism contradicted earlier statements.

"The Minister has already met with the AMA and will continue to consult doctors and the broader community about changes to make Medicare more sustainable for the future," the spokesman said.

"However, AMA President Professor Brian Owler's comments about the January 19 changes are at odds with his earlier calls for Medicare reform to address the "competitive drive towards six minute medicine".

AMA vice-president Dr Stephen Parnis warned the crisis currently gripping the British health system, where thousands of patients are being forced to wait up to 12 hours for emergency care and hospitals are urging people with non-life threatening illnesses to stay away, could strike here unless the Federal Government ends its "attack" on general practice.

"If people can't get in to see their GP, they will often end up at hospital, increasing the pressure on already-strained emergency departments and greatly adding to the Government's health bill."

Dr Parnis said the changes were an "assault" on general practice that would inevitably lead to increased out-of-pocket expenses for patients and higher health costs.

"As the UK experience shows, when governments cut investment in primary health care, it means more people end up going to hospital, they are sicker, and they are much more expensive to treat," he said. "We must not go down this path."

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten seized the opportunity while on the campaign trail ahead of the upcoming Queensland state election in his ongoing attempt to link federal issues with state issues.

"What the rebate reductions mean in plain English is fewer Queensland doctors will be bulk-billing," Mr Shorten said.

"More Queenslanders will have to wait when they are sick and will end up going into the medical system later when they are sicker."