Victorians with minor illnesses and injuries have been missing out on free health care at Medicare Urgent Care Centres (Medicare UCCs) since they opened this time last year, because they don’t know about them.
When Federal Health Minister Mark Butler issued a press release announcing the opening of two additional Medicare UCCs on May 17, he said “no appointment is required”, and “all patients need are their Medicare cards”.
He also said the centres “allow families in Victoria to get top-quality care from a nurse or a doctor without having to wait in a hospital emergency department.”
In the same statement, State Health Minister Anne-Marie Thomas said: “Our Medicare UCCs have already diverted thousands of Victorians from busy Emergency Departments – making sure our doctors and nurses can care for the sickest patients”.
However, staff in two of Melbourne’s busiest hospitals report most patients haven’t heard about Medicare UCCs.
Julia Schwarcz, Emergency Nurse at St Vincent’s Public Hospital, said patients were often unaware of this free service.
She said Emergency Departments (EDs) were clogged with patients who present “needing stitches for a minor cut or a prescription for a mild infection and are waiting for up to six hours (because) GPs are too expensive or too busy”.
Triage nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Georgina Johns, said when she directs patients with symptoms such as headache, migraine and minor burns to the closest Medicare UCC, many tell her they haven’t heard of the centres.
“Patients are thrilled to hear that there is a free alternative to waiting many hours in hospital to be seen by a doctor”, she said.
Johns, who also works at the Prahran Medicare UCC, said these were “well-staffed, well-resourced centres” and the “flow of patients is very manageable compared to hospital emergency departments where the pace continues to be hectic and waiting rooms are full”.
When contacted by The Age, Minister Thomas’ office referred all enquiries to the Medicare UCC public website which lists 27 addresses and describes the service as operating seven days a week from 8am to 10pm, “saving families time waiting in an emergency department and from waiting, as well as paying, to see a GP”.
A single-centre prospective cohort study, assessing referrals to the Priority Primary Care Centres (PPCCs) from 1 February to 30 June 2023, found “early results suggest that such patients can be adequately selected and managed at PPCCs”.
It also suggests that “patient waiting times (at EDs) should decrease with a reduction in demand through the establishment of PPCCs”.
However, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website lists the estimated waiting time for non-urgent patients in Victorian Emergency Departments is 120 minutes.
It also reports that, over the past five years, the “trend has been for people to wait longer in ED before being seen by a health professional”.
The Australian Medical Association warns that jammed EDs threaten the whole hospital system.
Both Johns and Schwarcz said they wished more people knew about Medicare UCCs.