“There are some practices that we suspect will fold in the next two months, particularly in Victoria,” said Dr Todd Cameron, a Melbourne GP.
Dr Cameron provides business training for GP clinic owners and said while there was an assumption from landlords that all health businesses were thriving because of COVID-19, it was not necessarily the case.
He said it had taken a lot of work from his clients to maintain their revenue during the pandemic and he had heard from other GPs who were seeing only five or six patients a day, down from 30 or 40.
“We know there are large numbers of clinics that qualified for JobKeeper,” he said.
The reported drop in visits to GPs is echoed by pathology testing data, which shows cervical cancer testing down 38 per cent and diabetes and prostate cancer tests down 24 per cent in Victoria in the second week of August, compared to February, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
Melbourne GP and former Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone said the decrease in patients seemed to be driven by the unfounded assumption that GP surgeries were risky places to visit and that the health system was overturn.
“Those two factors together have left vast numbers of patients not seeking care at the appropriate time,” he said.
Dr Grant Russell, a GP and primary care researcher at Monash University, said some surgeries, including those with respiratory clinics, had been quite busy.
Others had been heavily disadvantaged by their location.
“One of the practices in the study we are doing sits in the inner city and they are unbelievably quiet,” he said.
Dr Russell said the need to buy protective equipment and invest in other infection control measures had proved expensive.
“We’ve introduced screening, we’ve had to physically modify rooms and those sorts of things are not budgeted and they come out of left field,” he said.
Research has found doctors’ surgeries in urban areas and affluent communities have had bigger falls in revenue during the pandemic, partly because they were less likely to bulk bill before the pandemic hit.
That research by ANZ and the Melbourne Institute found that almost 31 per cent of GPs surveyed in May felt very or moderately financially stressed, while 65 per cent reported a decrease in their monthly income.
“In the second lockdown there’s been an even more significant downturn in patients coming out and seeking their usual care,” said Dr Bartone, who works in Lalor and Niddrie.
“I’ve spoken to a number of operators of large chains of clinics and they have all reported there’s been as much as a 30 per cent downturn in revenue.”
Telehealth consults have helped compensate for the loss of foot traffic to clinics, but they typically earn less than face-to-face consults.
“You take a hit each time you do one of those calls,” said Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, who runs a respiratory clinic in Altona North. “And you’re literally pedalling faster to stay still.”
Nevertheless, Dr Bartone said that if telehealth was not funded beyond September, it would force clinics to make some hard decisions.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has previously said he intended for telehealth to be “an abiding legacy” of the coronavirus crisis, but is yet confirm a funding extension.
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.