The Role of GPs

Dr Judith O’Malley-Ford

Recently, I spoke to a group about the role of the General Practitioner (GP) in the community, about the complexity of the role, and about its challenges of engaging with hospitals, health funds and providers of funding, and with the patient groups.

I have many interests in my role as a GP, including men’s and women’s health, respiratory medicine, sexual health, diabetes, weight management, antenatal care, mental health, skin cancer screening, and minor surgery. I am the author of two books – The Australian Medical Dictionary and The Medical Dictionary of Conditions & Diseases, published in 2008 and 2012, respectively. During 2012/2013, I was the editor of the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia magazine. As is always the case, the author learns as much from the experience hopefully as the audience. This was certainly the case for me.

My presentation occurred at a time of great uncertainty surrounding the future direction of Australia’s health system. The Federal Government’s suggestion of an impending GP co-payment is a worry not only to some disadvantaged patients but it is also a threat to the viability of GPs who bulk bill many patients. It represents a reduction in the Medicare fee for GPs for every single bulk billed patient.

Within this changing framework, it becomes increasingly difficult for people with health concerns to sit and talk with a GP. The only medical information source that most people can spend time on – the Internet – isn’t empathetic or sensitive to a patient’s needs, and often delivers false and confusing diagnoses.

GPs have a working insight of all of the many medical specialties – physical and psychological – and during each consultation they can offer options that produce a beneficial outcome for their patient.

Determining the nature of a medical complaint can sometimes be challenging, as symptoms described by a patient may not unlock the core problem with their wellbeing. A GP needs great intuition to determine if a hidden problem needs addressing. This may take many forms. It is often only through careful and gentle questioning by a GP that the real problem becomes apparent. This problem occurs across all age groups which, in turn, have their own brand of special problem areas. For instance:

• Children need to be assessed for proper growth and development, nutrition, education, and the prevention of infectious diseases.

• Adolescents need help with issues ranging from peer acceptance, sexual development, healthy eating and exercise, family and community relationships, through to risk minimisation with physical and substance abuse.

• Adults need to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet, including regular exercise and relaxation, along with addressing parenthood issues and the need to be aware of illnesses that emerge as they get older.

• Older age groups have similar problems to the adult group, but their illnesses often need treatment. There may be treatment side-effects to deal with, and many emotional upheavals, from the possible loss of a partner though to economic worries that can cause relationship problems and depression. In addition to providing clinical assessments, possible laboratory investigations, treatment, and referrals to other medical experts, GPs are responsible for patient follow-up and support, to ensure the return to good health of their patient group.

Many medical problems encountered in general practice are the result of patient lifestyle factors – and a GP’s effort to help control these can result in better health, happiness, and quality of life.

A GP can assist and advise in areas such as blood pressure control, lipid levels, healthy weight management, exercise and fitness, sexual health, relationships, and stress management, as well as advocating moderate alcohol intake and quitting smoking. Regular follow-up visits monitor these conditions.

Everyone needs a GP, one you feel comfortable talking to about sensitive health issues and can take advice from. Therefore, don’t allow years to go by before visiting a doctor after a niggle has become an issue.

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