Television interview with Minister Butler, Michael Rowland and Lisa Miller, ABC - 11 October 2022

Read the transcript of the television interview with Minister Butler, Michael Rowland and Lisa Miller on general practice; the Australian Medical Students' Association roundtable; removing red tape.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MICHAEL ROWLAND, PRESENTER: Let's come back home now. And the future of family medicine in Australia is back in the spotlight today with a meeting about the looming shortfall of GPs. 

LISA MILLAR, PRESENTER: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler and his opposition counterpart will be involved in a roundtable on the issue. And the Minister joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast. 

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Good morning, Lisa. 

MILLAR: We were hearing from the students who are at the core of this, the ones who seem in their droves not to be choosing to go into general practice. Do you understand what's driving that sentiment? 

BUTLER: At one level, all of all the pressures on the health care system, the thing that worries me the most right now is the state of general practice, which I think is the most parlous state it's been in in the 40-year history of Medicare. Patients tell me it's never been harder to see a doctor than it is right now. GPs tell me they're exhausted and they're very worried about the financial viability of their practice. 

And health ministers were only telling me last week that all of this is placing even more pressure on an already stressed hospital system. I think it's very clear that after nine years of cuts and neglect to Medicare, there's a sense that general practice has been run down. 

Not only is that placing real pressure on the system today, it is, as you've said, leading young medical graduates to steer away from general practice and into other specialties. 

Only one in eight medical graduates right now are intending to go into general practice. Not too long ago, that figure was four out of every eight medical graduates. 

So, if it's hard to see a doctor right now, it's going to get much, much harder. And I'll worry that general practice, as we understand it, really the backbone of Australia's health care system won't be sustainable unless we're able to reverse the trend. 

And that's the title of the discussion that we're going to have with medical students today. 

MILLAR: Even reversing the trend is going to take a while to make a difference when we're looking at the kinds of figures that people are predicting yourself as well, that by 2030 there'll be a shortage of 10,000 doctors. 

You can't whistle them up overnight. 

BUTLER: That's right. This is long-term reform after, frankly, long-term neglect. There are some immediate things we need to do, which is why strengthening Medicare was the centrepiece of our election health policy. I'm working with the AMA, with other doctors, nursing and patient groups, allied health groups. 

We're meeting very regularly for several hours every month to work out the priorities of that $750 million investment we're committed to, that will be rolled out from next year, and it will hopefully start to deliver the type of care that patients and doctors say is needed in modern Australia.

More complex chronic disease means you need longer, deeper relationships with your doctor, you need team-based care, with nurses and allied health professionals involved as well. And you need much better use of digital health, which is connected to other parts of the health care system. 

Those are the things we're working on right now. But they won't in and of themselves be enough. We need a shot in the arm to the Medicare system, which is why, as I say, we'll be doing that in the short term. 

But this is long term reform that's needed. And I can read the briefs and I can talk to the heads of profession, but some of my, let's say, more mature years can only really make an educated guess about what's happening in the minds of young medical graduates as they weigh up their life and career choices. 

Which is why I'm sitting down with them today as my opposition counterpart is doing as well is really important. 

MILLAR: Yeah, how quickly can you remove the red tape to get more overseas doctors into the country? Of course, taking into account the standards that Australians need to adhere to? 

BUTLER: We need to be very clear with patients and with the medical profession that we won't compromise on our very strong standards that we have here in Australia. But there are things we can do to reduce red tape. 

Applicants from overseas need to make five separate applications to five separate bodies. We've got to make that much simpler and ensure that there's a one touch system so that all of the different bodies that have to assess those applications look at one application. 

We know we can do this more quickly. We know visa processing times blew out dramatically over the last several years. We've already started to get them down after commitments we made at the Jobs and Skills Summit. 

For example, it takes now less than one week to process a visa for a nurse coming in from overseas. We're making the same changes for doctors as well. But there are some real bureaucratic hurdles we need to work on. 

Health ministers and I were talking about this last week, and it was actually on the agenda of the National Cabinet of the premiers, chief ministers and the Prime Minister last week as well. 

We're determined to do everything we can so that when doctors and nurses come in from overseas, they don't spend months languishing in an apartment in Sydney or Melbourne or driving a cab or serving coffee. They go straight on to the hospital floor or into the aged care facility or into general practices to deliver health care that they're trying to deliver. 

MILLAR: Just on another matter, we're looking at the mandatory isolation being lifted for people with COVID. We're moving into this period where the words “personal responsibility” are going to get tossed around a lot, and yet the number of people getting boosters and the vaccinations is dropping right off, immunity would be dropping in the community. Do you need to change the messaging that you're delivering? 

BUTLER: I think it is very clear that there's a large cohort of the population who have decided not to take the third dose, the booster. I think we lost several months of vital information in the early part of this year, and there was a bit of a view that getting two doses of the vaccine was sufficient, particularly if you also got COVID. The third dose rates for about 5 million Australians who are now well over six months since they had their second dose, are way too slow. I think all health ministers, all health sector professionals have been saying this. 

We rolled out an information campaign over the course of winter. It was very successful in terms of lifting the fourth dose rates among older Australians who, as you know, are more vulnerable to severe disease or even hospitalisation or death. We're very pleased with that. But I am worried about the third dose rates. That was a recommendation from the Jane Halton review that I commissioned on vaccines and treatments very recently and we're looking at her recommendations right now. 

MILLAR: Mark Butler, Minister for Health, thank you for joining us. 

BUTLER: Thank you, Lisa

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