If there’s one life decision that’s worth taking a little time over, it’s choosing a GP.
The right GP can make a big difference to how healthy you are and may ultimately save your life.
As well as diagnosing illness, a good GP can draw your attention to problems you never knew mattered, decide if you need certain tests, refer you to the right specialists, monitor your progress, offer reassurance or advice, and keep you out of hospital or limit the care you need there.
If you have a chronic or serious illness, your GP relationship will be especially important.
So what should inform your choice?
First off, consider asking around. You may have friends who all swear by a particular GP, or one they think you should steer clear of, said Consumers Health Forum of Australia spokesman Mark Metherell.
Other health professionals like pharmacists or physiotherapists might also have suggestions.
The Federal Government also allows you to search for GPs (and other health services) with filters for location, whether or not they bulk-bill, and accessibility options, giving you an idea of what’s out there.
And there are now many online rating and review sites too — although critics argue these are easily exploited by vested interests.
Other early considerations include the practice’s opening hours, whether it has arrangements in place for after-hours care, and if it’s in a convenient location for you.
Your first consultation
There’s nothing like actually meeting a doctor in a consultation to get a feel for their personality and approach and see if it clicks with yours.
The first meeting with a new GP should be the time for you to communicate your needs, expectations, and any chronic or ongoing illnesses you have with your doctor, Mr Metherell said.
Make it clear you want a doctor who will listen to you and take the time to discuss your health issues, and you should feel comfortable coming to them with whatever’s on your mind, be it big or small or perhaps embarrassing.
Don’t settle on the first GP you see if it doesn’t feel like a good fit.
Qualifications and accreditations
Many Australian GPs will have chosen to become fellows through the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), a process that involves special training and professional development.
President of the RACGP, Dr Bastian Seidel, said looking out for that qualification in your doctor ensures they’re up-to-date with the latest developments in general practice.
Mr Metherell said while some older doctors won’t have a RACGP fellowship and will still do a reasonable job, “doctors who take their work seriously would ensure they have a fellowship”.
Another thing to look out for is accreditation against the RACGP’s standards. That means they’ve allowed the College to come in and do quality control checks. Dr Seidel said almost 80 per cent of Australian practices are accredited in this way.
It’s also worth knowing that many GPs take short courses or have a special interest in particular areas like mental health, dermatology, travel medicine and so on. If you’ve got young children, for example, someone with a paediatric qualification could be valuable.
How they bill
How a GP bills patients can be a clincher too.
Do you want someone who bulk bills, meaning they charge the standard Medicare fee for their service so you won’t have to pay anything out of pocket? Or is this a less critical issue for you?
Many GPs set their own fee for their service, which means there will be a gap between the amount Medicare reimburses and the amount you fork out.
While plenty of good doctors will bulk-bill, Mr Metherell believes it’s more likely doctors who do so are looking to move patients through quickly.
This is because the current Medicare fee hasn’t kept pace with increases in costs of delivering services. Lots of shorter consultations can help a GP compensate for this.
If you’re willing to pay a private fee, odds are you will get a more in-depth consultation, Mr Metherell said.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that often it takes a little time for a good doctor to sort out your health needs.”
The type of practice
Another consideration is what sort of practice you want your GP to be in.
Smaller, cottage-style practices with a team of doctors can provide a more familiar service, but may have shorter opening hours.
Larger medical centres usually have extended opening hours and may offer other services (like pathology or a pharmacy) under the same roof.
It really depends on your personal preference, and whether the area you’re in gives you the choice between them.
“In the American experience, very good quality general practice seems to be rendered by GPs who have a practice size of four to five full-time equivalent GPs,” Dr Seidel said.
But in Australia, there’s evidence smaller practices — even just a single GP — can still offer excellent care, he added.
Mr Metherell, on the other hand, argued: “There’s still some fine solo GPs but the nature of modern medicine often does better in a team-based arrangement.”
One point that many experts agree on is that seeing the same GP over time can have substantial benefits.
When patients see multiple medical practitioners without consistency, it’s easy for test results, prescriptions and pathology to be duplicated and information to fall through the cracks.
Dr Seidel said: “When you see your GP on a regular basis, and it’s your GP, there’s a very good chance you’re living longer compared to patients who are choosing to see multiple medical doctors with their health concerns.”