Primary healthcare research funding inadequate: RACGP

19 July, 2016

General practice health services are among the most efficient and cost-effective in the nation, consuming only 7% of Australia's total health spend on Medicare while assisting almost nine out of ten Australians each year. 

At the same time, general practice commands less than 2% of research grants administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

"The dollars spent on research into primary healthcare is falling and is woefully inadequate," said Dr Frank R Jones, president of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

"More investment in primary healthcare research is logical if we want more efficient and effective treatments and better health outcomes," he said.

A research paper released this week and to be published in the next edition of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) bolsters Dr Jones' view.

The paper, written by RACGP Expert Committee – Research Chair Professor Tania Winzenberg from the University of Tasmania and Professor Gerard Gill from Deakin University calls for more research to be done on the treatments GPs give patients, which would require more federal funding.

"Studies have shown good primary health care systems are linked to better health, fewer deaths and greater efficiency, yet federal funding is being cut," Professor Winzenberg said.

"There is a mismatch between the burden of diseases commonly managed in general practice and the number of randomised controlled trials exploring their effective management. Furthermore, the proportion of research funds directed at primary healthcare research is abysmally low when one considers the health dollars spent on primary healthcare and its importance to the community."

Many GP research programs, including the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute, the Primary Health Care Research and Information Service and the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health study (BEACH), have lost or will soon lose funding.

"There is now less direct funding for primary healthcare research than there has been for decades," Professor Winzenberg said.

"Prioritising general practice research was a key part of the RACGP's pre-Budge submission to the Federal Government this year and the recommendations, if implemented, would go a long way towards overcoming the obstacles blocking the continued development of sustainable, long-term general practice research capacity for Australia," she said.

The RACGP recommended the Federal Government prioritises primary healthcare research and:

  • commits $27 million over nine years to establish a general practice research fellowship program, offering eight 4–5-year fellowships to develop general practitioner research leaders
  • allocates 10% of the NHMRC's project grants budget to general practice-specific research projects
  • invests $2.5 million to establish an NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in General Practice/Primary Care
  • invests $200,000 per annum to support the maintenance of practice-based research networks, specifically the Australian Primary Care Research Network (APCReN)
  • provides $2 million per annum across university departments of general practice and rural health to facilitate practice-based research networks
  • implements a practice incentive payment to enable practices to facilitate and implement research.

"Without such a plan we are in grave danger of wasting the investment made to achieve current gains in capacity, leaving our profession and the Australian population to make do with a severely restricted evidence base to support primary health care in this country," said Professor Winzenberg.