Aussies skipping healthcare as cost of living bites


Australians are cutting costs that could have long-term implications as the cost of living crisis worsens, according to a new survey.

A survey by comparison site Finder found that 15% of Australians have cut back on going to doctors and dentists due to rising costs.

Sarah Megginson, money expert at Finder, says that the survey showed just how much of an issue the cost of living crisis is.

aussies skipping health care as cost of living bites

"We use that phrase so often now that it can lose its meaning, but people really are feeling the pinch to their budgets," she says.

Megginson says that home loans seemed to be taking a big portion of people's budgets, which meant more day-to-day spending was becoming harder to do.

"Preventative healthcare, like GP visits, is one of the areas where people are cutting back because they need to pay for essentials. All those extra things are just becoming that little bit harder," she says.

Rising costs for GPs

This survey by Finder supports a larger survey of 11,000 adults last year by the Australian Healthcare Index that found 53% of Australians have cut their visits to the GP due to rising costs.

Dr Marcus Tan, CEO and founder of HealthEngine, says the report raised serious concerns about people skipping primary care.

"With GPs also being the conduit to other care including referrals to specialists, mental health treatment plans and medication scripts, the impact of skipping the GP compounds. These findings illustrate just some of the challenges facing Australian healthcare," he says.

GPs across Australia have started ditching bulk billing due to stalling Medicare rebates and the costs of running a practice.

A survey of 477 GPs late last year by Healthed found that 22% had recently changed their billing model.

Of those that changed their model, 33% had switched from bulk billing to mixed billing, and 67% changed from mixed billing to private billing.

Oxford Village Medical Centre in Sydney's inner suburbs recently switched to private billing stating that rates from Medicare had made it unaffordable to continue.

"Bulk billing rates from Medicare are not increasing in line with inflation and are considerably less than the Australian Medical Association (AMA) recommended rate.

The change to private billing is necessary to keep up with the costs of running a medical clinic, to retain our GPs and to continue serving our community," says its website.

Medicare reforms

Already Australians spend about $7 billion a year out of their own pockets on medical services and medications listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, according to research by the Grattan Institute.

Lead author and Grattan Institute health and aged care program director Stephen Duckett says that bulk-billing rates are too low and out-of-pocket payments are too high for some services.

"It's a catch-22: the people who need the most healthcare - the poor and the chronically ill - miss out on care the most," says Duckett.

"That is obviously bad for those people, but it's also bad for taxpayers, because when people skip or defer recommended treatment, they often get sicker and end up in hospital."

Queensland Chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Dr Bruce Willett echoed the statements saying skipping medical visits had a huge impact.

"We know GPs are the most cost-effective part of healthcare, but it's also the best for patient outcomes. If you neglect things early then you run the risk of it getting worse," he says.

The cost to taxpayers of a standard GP visit is $39, but the minimum cost of presenting to the hospital is $500. 

"We saw during COVID that people were afraid to go to the GP and that caused a surge in hospital visits. That demand is still ongoing and its quite unprecedented," says Dr Willett.

But there are solutions. The Grattan Institute laid out certain policies for a better Medicare including expanding outpatient services and funding bulk-billing specialist services in private clinics.

Other reform suggestions include lowering the co-payment for people on multiple medications and eliminating out-of-pocket payments for diagnostic and radiotherapy services.

According to the report, by investing an extra $710 million per year on these reforms, Australians could save about $1 billion in out-of-pocket payments each year.

The RACGP supports many of the reforms, with Dr Willett in particular endorsing the need for better funding on team-based care.

"Having the financial ability to have nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals in the one practice is much safer and leads to better patient outcomes while also being more cost-effective," he says.

Government response

The federal government this year has already set up a taskforce to strengthen Medicare with the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler, saying primary care was in its worst shape in 40 years.

"It's time for reform. Now is the time to ensure Medicare delivers the kind of primary care Australians expect, both now and into the future," he says.

Butler says patient care was central to the recommendations of the report and supported new funding models and new ways of working together.

"The improvements they have identified are aimed at making sure every Australian can get the high-quality care they deserve," Butler says.

The government so far has committed $750 million to deliver the highest priority investments in primary care that will be brought forward at this year's Budget.

Get stories like this in our newsletters.

Related Stories

Eliot Hastie was a senior journalist at Money magazine in early 2023. He was previously a producer and presenter at ausbiz where he covered startups, small caps, cryptocurrency and every other investible opportunity for Australians. Eliot has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Journalism from the University of Westminster. He tweets at @Hastie93.