ACT residents are less likely to visit their GP on a frequent basis than those living in Western Sydney or other metropolitan areas, according to a new study by the National Health Performance Authority.
The study, which was released on Thursday, accessed 2012-13 data to provide details on Australia's most frequent users of GP services, their common characteristics, and the costs to Medicare.
NHPA chief executive Dr Diane Watson said the findings were unprecedented and would help health professionals better understand their communities.
"Patients who see GPs much more than the average are of interest to health and hospital managers, doctors and nurses because they have the most need for effective, well co-ordinated health care," she said.
According to the report, Australians visit a GP 5.6 times per year on average with close to 85 per cent visiting their GP at least once during the year.
The percentage of ACT residents who visited their GP between 12 and 19 times was 5.4, which was below the national average of 8.7 per cent and the 13.1 per cent recorded in South Western Sydney
Only 1.2 per cent of patients at GPs in North Canberra and Gungahlin visited more than 20 times a year, compared to around 7 per cent in Western Sydney.
"Among metropolitan communities the highest percentage of very high and frequent GP attenders was in South Western Sydney at 19.4 per cent compared to the lowest in ACT at 7.1 per cent," the report said.
ACT Medicare Local chairman Dr Martin Liedvogel said it was difficult to compare the territory to areas such as Western Sydney due to different living standards, socio-economic conditions, and health issues.
Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler said the report highlighted the importance of patients having a regular GP manage their conditions.
"It shows that the people who most frequently attend their GP are generally unwell, and have complex and chronic conditions, which include arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancers, heart conditions, circulatory conditions, asthma, and mental health," he said.
"These types of patients are consuming significant health resources, and there is a significant need to target these patients with extra support, co-ordinated by the usual GP."
Dr Liedvogel said many of the chronic conditions described by Professor Owler could be treated by local GPs rather than hospitals, although more support would be needed from the government.
"Generally speaking, it seems to be true that when people attend a privately billed consultation they tend to have more health problems dealt with at the same time," he said.
The report found one-third of Australians made between one and three visits to the GP each year, with those visiting more than 12 times accounting for 41 per cent on non-hospital Medicare expenditure – or $6.5 billion.
Those who frequently visit their GP were reportedly "more likely to be older, live in areas with the most socioeconomic disadvantage and have the lowest rates of private health insurance coverage".
"Across Australia, the lower-income outer-urban communities had the highest percentage of very high and frequent GP attenders," the report said.
The report found almost a quarter of the 2.5 million Australians aged 15 years and older who visited an emergency department during 2012-13 also visited a GP more than 12 times.
"For all adults who reported visiting an emergency department in the past 12 months, almost one-quarter felt their most recent emergency department visit was for care that could have been provided by a GP," the report said.
A Productivity Commission report released earlier this year found there were 50,486 potentially avoidable presentations to ACT emergency departments during 2013-14, an increase on the 44,535 presentations recorded during 2008-9.
Professor Owler said patients who were well managed by their GP were less likely to cost the health system money in the future.
"Supporting general practice to continue managing these patients – who are growing in number each year – is an investment in health care that can help make the health system more sustainable," he said.
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