Radio interview with Minister Butler and Sally Sara, ABC RN Breakfast 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Sally Sara on Medicare Urgent Care Clinics hitting the major milestone of 250,000 visits; gender inequality in healthcare.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SALLY SARA, HOST: The federal government says its network of Medicare Urgent Care Clinics has hit a key milestone, with a quarter of a million visits across Australia since the scheme began last year. The 58 clinics were introduced in all states and territories by the end of last year to try and take the pressure off hospitals, by making it easier for hundreds of thousands of Australians to get urgent care from a doctor or nurse without waiting hours in busy hospital emergency departments. Federal Health Minister Mark Butler will visit one of the clinics in Adelaide today and joins me now. Minister, welcome back to RN.
SARA: This system was designed to take pressure off hospitals. But ramping in South Australia has hit near record levels. There are problems in Victoria, in Queensland, in Tasmania and beyond. What evidence do you have that these clinics have reduced pressure on hospital emergency waiting times?
BUTLER: I guess the first piece of evidence we have is from patients themselves who are going through these Medicare Urgent Care Clinics. As you say, we're up to more than 10,000 presentations a week now. We've got this fully scaled up and about half of them say that if the clinic wasn't available to them, they would have attended their local hospital emergency department. These are for emergencies that are non-life threatening generally. So if your kid falls off a skateboard and busts their wrist, they need care immediately. They're probably not able to get into the usual family GP, who are very crowded at the moment, particularly if it's a weekend or if it's after hours. So if there wasn't these Urgent Care Clinics in the community now, they would be going to a hospital ED and potentially waiting eight, ten or even more hours to be seen. So I don't pretend that this is completely changed the hospital system experience overnight. But it is it, we know, taking pressure off the hospital emergency departments at that lower end of the urgency triage system.
SARA: You've said that Urgent Care Clinics shouldn't be turning away any walk in patients, but the clinic you're visiting today has had to do that because they're routinely booked out two hours before closing. What do you think about that situation, and what's the government going to do to try and deal with it?
BUTLER: There were some experiences of very long wait times over the Christmas and New Year period, which is very common, frankly, because general practice is generally shut down and people aren't able to get the sort of care, because general practices are closed and such like so hospitals are very busy during that Christmas New Year period. But we've seen that even out, as we've got out of the holiday season and back to a more usual operating environment. But we're monitoring these things very closely, Sally. I mean, these are very new. This is a very common model of care in other countries we usually compare ourselves to. But it's been a gap in the Australian health care system for many years that we were determined to fill. 58 clinics does not provide national coverage, I'm very conscious of that. We were conscious to build enough clinics in enough different types of locations – so in the cities as well as regions – and be able to evaluate them to make sure that they were properly designed and were working in the way in which they intended. And once we do that, we hope to be able to scale them up even further.
SARA: Minister, we're seeing in the headlines that regional hospitals in some parts of Victoria are warning that they face inevitable closures or sweeping job losses, after a statewide order to slash costs because of the Victorian state government's financial situation. Have you raised concerns about that issue with the Victorian Government, or will you?
BUTLER: I haven't, because I've only really read about them very early this morning, as many of your listeners will have, particularly the Victorian listeners, Sally. We are concerned pressure on hospital systems around the country. We're seeing this, frankly, around the world. We've got a range of different pressures: the ageing of the population that most Western countries are experiencing, more chronic disease, but most particularly, the impacts of the Covid pandemic. There's still a lot of built up pressure in our hospital systems because during the pandemic, particularly in those jurisdictions like Victoria and New South Wales that had extensive lockdowns, people were not getting the care that they needed for their non-COVID conditions. So we're seeing much more acuity in the system. People weren't getting cancer screens and a whole range of things. So this is not particular to Victoria, to Australia, but it is something we're determined to work with our state colleagues on. Which is why we agreed at the December National Cabinet to put an extra $14 billion, at least, into the hospital system from the Commonwealth and also, in our areas of responsibility, rebuild general practice, put in place these Medicare Urgent Care Clinics that try to take as much pressure off the hospital system as we can.
SARA: Minister, we've had a question from one of our listeners: can you only use these urgent care clinics if you live in a small defined local area or postcode ring of that Urgent Care Clinic?
BUTLER: No, they're available for walk ins. They are situated around the hospital areas that we're most concerned about, we analysed the waiting times at particular hospital emergency departments. We also, as I said, wanted a mix of clinics in metropolitan and regional centres to get a sense of what works best in those different locations. But you don't have your driver's licence checked to see whether you live in the area. They're available for walk in patients very openly.
SARA: Minister, gynaecologists, obstetricians and midwives say that a gender review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule is urgently needed to address what they describe as sexism in the system. One example is lower rebates for internal female pelvic ultrasounds in comparison to male scrotal ultrasounds. What are you going to do to tackle that issue?
BUTLER: When we came to government, we were pretty clear that we were concerned about a structural gender bias in the healthcare system. We undertook some survey work, and frankly, the experiences women reported right across Australia with our health care system confirmed that. I mean, it's not just the way in which the MBS and the Medicare Benefits Schedule is designed. It's the everyday experience. It's the access to care. It's why we've opened a range of endometriosis and pelvic pain clinics, which was a clearly identified gap in the system. But we know there is more that we need to do. Ged Kearney, the Assistant Minister for Health, has taken particular responsibility for this. She's put together a Women’s Health Advisory Council. She's pulled together all of the groups that you talked about, and more, for a summit to examine this and start to map out ways in which we can deal with this structural bias. And it's not going to be able to be fixed overnight. It's quite deep and it's quite endemic, as we examine it more closely. But it's something we're determined to work on as we progress.
SARA: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler, thank you very much.
BUTLER: Thank you very much.

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