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Throughout the country, Australians are having to wait longer and longer for an appointment with their GP. According to data from Healthengine, Australia’s largest online healthcare booking service, the average wait time to see a GP in Victoria went from 1,98 days in 2019 to 3,33 days in 2022. In Queensland, average wait times increased from 2,33 days to 3,86 days during the same time period. The situation is further exasperated in rural areas where wait times can be several weeks long. In this article, we will look at the impacts these prolonged wait times are having on our hospital systems.

Prolonged diagnosis

Of course, the most important thing to consider is the impact wait times can have on patients’ health outcomes. Fortunately in most cases, having to wait for a day or two to see a doctor will not have a significant impact on a patient’s prognosis. But as wait times grow longer, this might no longer be the case. In rural areas of the country, patients are already having to wait for as long as eight weeks to see a GP.

For many serious illnesses, including different forms of cancer, early detection significantly increases the likelihood of a curative outcome. If diagnosis is delayed, the patient may require more aggressive forms of treatments. Delayed detection of a serious illness could even prove to be fatal. As well as being devastating for the individual and their loved ones, this will also put an added strain on the healthcare system. Compare, for example, the resources it takes to remove a suspicious mole as a simple outpatient procedure to those required for treating an advanced form of skin cancer at a later stage.

Added pressure on emergency departments

One of the most immediate impacts of prolonged wait times is the added strain on emergency departments. Emergency departments don’t just assist those experiencing an acute emergency, but they have also long been a safety net for those with nowhere else to turn. Besides accidents and sudden illnesses, emergency departments also help people suffering from chronical illnesses, mental health challenges and other health issues.

With GP wait times as long as two months in some rural parts of the country, more and more people are turning to emergency services as their only faceable option. This means consultations and referrals that would normally be handled by a general practitioner will now fall on emergency departments which are already under an enormous strain. It seems a cruel joke that longer wait times at general practices are resulting in longer wait times at emergency departments, too.

In an effort to relieve some of the pressure experienced by emergency departments across the country, governments in Victoria and New South Wales have already decided to expand their urgent care services. The hope is that emergency departments will be able to focus their resources on the most serious cases when less emergent patients are directed to GP care – something many patients would likely have done in the first place if it weren’t for the long wait times.

Increased staff turnover

Prolonged wait times are not only hard on the patients, but they also put further stress on a workforce that’s already stretched thin. Routinely dealing with patients who are not only navigating different health challenges but are also frustrated by the long wait times is taking its toll on healthcare professionals across the spectrum, from doctors to nurses to administrative staff and beyond.

Reports of patients’ aggressive behaviour have been on the rise for several years running and the frustration caused by longer wait times is only adding more fuel to the fire. This added stress is likely to increase staff turnover in a sector that’s already experiencing a global staff shortage. Healthcare providers experiencing burnout are at an increased risk of leaving their profession altogether. As the population ages and the demand for medical professionals will only keep growing, our healthcare system can’t afford to lose any personnel to burnout. Addressing long wait times is not just about tackling the problems of today, but about safeguarding the future of our healthcare system.

Digital solutions

As with any crisis, the current challenges are also inspiring new innovations, with current technology providing us new tools to try and tackle the obstacles. Telehealth services allow patients to consult with a healthcare provider remotely, removing the need to travel to a doctor’s office and sit in a waiting room. There are many instances where an in-person visit is not necessary. When these cases are handled remotely, it frees up time for GPs to see the patients who need it most in person.

But while telehealth services can be very beneficial for patients and providers alike, digital tools alone are not a silver bullet. These tools will not solve the root causes of our current crisis and just as importantly, digital services will not reach all Australians. As of 2022, 14% of Australians do not own a smartphone. That number is significantly higher for older Australians who in turn are more likely to need healthcare services.

The flexibility factor

Besides accelerating the sector’s digital transformation, prolonged wait times at general practices can actually reshape the structure of our healthcare system. The aforementioned expansion of urgent care services in Victoria and New South Wales are a concrete example of this.

Some healthcare providers are reacting by creating a new “middle ground” between general practices and emergency departments. A great example of this are the Head to Health clinics which provide free mental health support on a walk-in basis. This low-threshold service can have a positive impact on wait times, as GPs are currently playing a major role in tackling the mental health crisis. That the clinics look to assist people whose needs are not quite met at a general practitioner’s office but whose challenges are not severe enough to warrant a visit to the ER highlights the ever-important flexibility factor.

In healthcare, one size most definitely does not fit all. The healthcare sector needs to let go of outdated expectations of patients having to jump through strictly standardizes hoops, and ensure once and for all that we’re not leaving the most vulnerable behind.