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RACGP: people with long COVID must not be forgotten

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has welcomed a parliamentary inquiry recognising the central role of GPs in supporting people with long COVID.

The House of Representative Health Committee has released an issues paper as part of its inquiry into long COVID and repeated COVID infections, which the RACGP made a submission to.

The Committee said it anticipates the greatest burden of care relating to long COVID and repeated COVID infections will fall on primary care providers, including GPs. And primary care “will play an important and central role in supporting people with long COVID”. RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said it highlighted the need for GPs to be supported to care for patients with long COVID.

“Long COVID is a serious concern, and much more needs to be done to support those experiencing it,” she said.

“Across Australia, long COVID is affecting people, with symptoms ranging from fatigue, breathlessness, anxiety and depression, chest pain, “brain fog” and changes to taste and smell which can last for weeks or months after the initial illness. “The Committee’s issues paper has identified key themes emerging from the evidence to date, including that the greatest burden of care relating to long COVID and repeated COVID infections will fall to GPs.

“This is welcome recognition of what GPs across Australia know: we are the first port of call for patients with long COVID, and we are seeing more cases every day. “GPs are expert in managing complex and chronic disease, and we are best placed to provide ongoing coordinated care for patients with long COVID.

“The issues paper has also highlighted the need for greater investment in data collection and research into long COVID, which the RACGP has also long been calling for. “Currently, Australia doesn’t have an agreed definition of long COVID, which is essential to support GPs in diagnosing patients and managing their ongoing care.

“Research funding should be directed to general practice, where the bulk of patient care is taking place. We need to gather data from primary care, and it needs to be interpreted by GPs. “This will be a step change, as general practice is often overlooked when it comes to research, despite accounting for the majority of health services provided each year. However, it is essential to ensure we get the most accurate snapshot of this condition and how to help those affected.”

The RACGP President said Medicare reform was also key to supporting patients with long COVID.

“All patients suffering long COVID need access to best-practice medical care and support, regardless of their postcode or income,” she said.

“But we know people across the country are missing out on the care they need because Medicare does not adequately support patients with long COVID.

“These patients require complex care, and this takes time. But the current patient rebate structure disincentivises GPs to spend more time with patients with multiple, complex conditions, including those with long COVID.

“This is why the RACGP is continuing to urge the federal Government to increase patient rebates for longer consultations to ensure people with complex conditions, including long COVID, can get the care they need.

“We also know patients are struggling to access care because there aren’t enough specialist long COVID clinics, especially in rural and remote areas. And clinics that are up and running can’t meet the demand from patients.

“Australia needs a mix of appropriately funded and resourced practices and dedicated long COVID clinics, as well as support for patients to access allied health care. This is essential to ensure no patient misses out on the care they need.

“While we may want to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is that this virus is here to stay. And we need a long term plan to deal with COVID-19 and long COVID in the years ahead. Access to evidence-based medical care and support is essential to ensure long COVID sufferers have the best chance of recovering and moving on with their lives.” An RACGP resource on caring for adult patients with post-COVID-19 conditions can be found here.

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