GP workload 'steadily rising' with ageing population

12 November, 2014

General practitioners (GPs) are working harder, treating more chronic conditions, ordering more pathology tests, and seeing more elderly patients than they were a decade ago, according to new research.

"Patients are having longer, more complicated consultations now than a decade ago," said Associate Professor Helena Britt, director of the BEACH program at University of Sydney.

"GPs today manage 158 problems for every 100 patient encounters, which has risen from 145 problems ten years ago.

"Most Australians (85 per cent) saw a GP in the last year. These people had an average of seven consultations in that period.

"GPs are working much harder."

Two reports published from the Family Medicine Research Centre at the university explore the activities of Australian GPs and the care of their patients in 'General practice activity in Australia 2013-14', and 'A decade of Australian general practice 2004-05 to 2013-14'.

GPs' work "increasingly complex"

Dr Liz Marles, a general practitioner and past President of the RACGP, said: "This new data highlights the increasingly complex work that GPs do.

"In any given visit, a GP is dealing with multiple complex problems and treating more chronic conditions than ever before.

"GPs are most people's first port of call for their health problems. They deal with everything from health checks, immunisations, coughs and colds and mild illnesses, to long term chronic disease management and palliative care of the dying.

"As the life expectancy of Australians continues to rise, people are living longer with disease. Therefore, a greater part of the GP workload involves managing older patients with multiple chronic conditions.

"In 2013-14, older patients accounted for about a third of the GPs clinical workload. In the past decade this has increased from 26.5 per cent of GPs' caseload to 32.5 per cent today. In particular, we have seen a doubling in the number of patients aged over 85 years.

"GPs are also spending more time looking after conditions related to increased weight and an ageing population.

"The increasing incidence of overweight and obesity (now at 63 per cent of adults) may be linked with the rise in consultations for depression, diabetes, and reflux.

"High blood pressure, which is also related to age and obesity, is the most common chronic problem managed by GPs.

"Being a GP is now a more complicated area of medicine due to people having multiple illnesses.

"Consultations nowadays are rarely quick and simple, in fact only three per cent of GPs' consulting time requires brief consultations of six minutes or less," Dr Marles said.

Fast facts:

  • The new study collected the details of about 100,000 nationally representative GP-patient encounters
  • Each year about 85 per cent of Australians visit a general practitioner (GP) at least once
  • Over the decade 2004-14, the Australian population increased from 20.1 to 23.1 million (16 per cent increase)
  • The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over increased by 27 per cent in the last decade
  • In 2013-14, older patients accounted for about a third of the GPs clinical workload, while children (under fifteen years) accounted for only 11 per cent.
  • The number of general practice items of service claimed through Medicare in the last ten years increased from 98.2 million to 133.4 million a 35.8 per cent increase
  • In 2013-14, the Federal Government spent more than $6.3 billion on 133.4 million general practice services
  • GPs are getting older
  • More female GPs than there were ten years ago