However, there’s a glut of doctors in most cities and metropolitan areas and an acute shortage (totalling around 1,000 GPs) in rural areas, where the ratio of doctors to population is less than half the national average. Therefore in rural areas and the outback, where you’re also served by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, you may need to travel some distance to visit a doctor.
Choosing a Doctor
It isn’t necessary to be registered with a doctor in Australia, where you can choose to visit any doctor, either as a Medicare patient (provided the doctor is registered with Medicare) or a private patient. Many doctors in the suburbs of major cities work at public clinics and medical centres, where a number of doctors have a group practice, at least one of whom is usually female (there’s a relatively large percentage of women doctors in Australia). Clinics and medical centres usually have an in-house pharmacy, and medical tests, such as blood and urine analysis and X-rays, may also be conducted in-house.
If you wish to be treated as a Medicare patient, you must check whether a doctor charges the schedule fee for consultations and bulk bills Medicare or whether he charges more (which may be $40 or more) and requires you to pay. Many doctors now charge more than the schedule fee, and in some areas you may have difficulty finding a doctor who doesn’t, although pensioners and Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders are usually exempt from additional fees. If you wish to see a GP privately, you (or your insurance company) must pay the full fee, which is at the doctor’s discretion but is usually at least $50 for a routine consultation.
Surgery hours vary, but are typically from 8.30am to 6 or 7pm, Mondays to Fridays, with early closing one day per week, e.g. 5 or 5.30pm on Fridays. Evening surgeries may also be held one or two evenings per week. ‘Emergency’ surgeries may be held on Saturday mornings, e.g. from 8.30 to 11.30am or noon, when you can be treated without an appointment for urgent but not life-threatening problems. Most doctors’ surgeries have answering machines outside surgery hours, when a recorded message informs you of the name and telephone number of the doctor on call (or deputising service).
An appointment must be made to see a GP, usually one or two days in advance. If you’re an urgent case (but not an emergency), your doctor usually sees you immediately, but you should still telephone in advance if possible. Surgeries are often overrun, however, and you may need to wait well past your appointment time to see a doctor. Australian doctors make house calls, although these can be expensive for private patients.
Medicare patients must always be referred by a GP to a specialist, e.g. an eye specialist, gynaecologist or orthopaedic surgeon. If you want a second opinion on any health matter, you may ask to see a specialist, although your doctor may refuse to refer you – in which case you can obtain a second opinion from another GP, who may agree to refer you, or you can consult a specialist as a private patient. Patients with private health insurance may be free to make appointments directly with specialists, although most insurance companies prefer patients to be referred by GPs. Most specialists have long waiting lists for Medicare patients.