Divisions of general practice in Australia: how do they measure up in the international context?
Smith, J.; Sibthorpe, B.
Australia and New Zealand Health Policy 4: 15
ISSN/ISBN: 1743-8462 PMID: 17626642 DOI: 10.1186/1743-8462-4-15
Since the late 1980s, there has been evidence of an international trend towards more organised primary care. This has taken a number of forms including the emergence of primary care organisations. Underpinning such developments is an inherent belief in evidence that suggests that well-developed primary care is associated with improved health outcomes and greater cost-effectiveness within health systems. In Australia, primary care organisations have emerged as divisions of general practice. These are professionally-led, regionally-based, and largely government-funded voluntary associations of general practitioners that seek to co-ordinate local primary care services, and improve the quality of care and health outcomes for local communities. In this paper, we examine and debate the development of divisions in the international context, using six roles of primary care organisations outlined in published research. The six roles that are used as the basis for the critique are the ability of primary care organisations to: improve health outcomes; manage demand and control costs; engage primary care physicians; enable greater integration of health services; develop more accessible services in community and primary care settings; and enable greater scrutiny and assurance of quality of primary care services. We conclude that there has been an evolutionary approach to divisions' development and they now appear embedded as geographically-based planning and development organisations within the Australian primary health care system. The Australian Government has to date been cautious in its approach to intervention in divisions' direction and performance. However, options for the next phase include: making greater use of contracts between government and divisions; introducing and extending proposed national quality targets for divisions, linked with financial or other incentives for performance; government sub-contracting with state-based organisations to act as purchasers of care; pursuing a fund-holding approach within divisions; and developing divisions as a form of health maintenance organisation. The challenge for the Australian Government, should it wish to see divisions' role expand, is to find mechanisms to enable this without compromising the relatively strong GP engagement that increasingly distinguishes divisions of general practice within the international experience of primary care organisations.