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Senator: Majority of ‘Urgent Care Clinics’ Fail to Meet Required Opening Hours, with Over 70 Percent Falling Short

These clinics were promised by the Albanese government to help ease pressure on the stretched emergency departments.

Almost three-quarters of urgent care clinics across Australia are currently operating fewer hours than required, a Senate estimates committee session revealed on Feb. 16.

Urgent Care Clinics—centres providing care for medical issues that are urgent, but not an emergency—were promised by the Albanese government during the 2022 election campaign to help ease pressure on stretched emergency departments.

Senator Jess Walsh said that out of the 58 Urgent Care Clinics currently operating, 42 (72 percent) are not open from at least 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. The figure was provided to the Senate Estimates Committee at the request of Sen. Walsh.

“As an example, say that the Frankston urgent care clinic is open until midnight. It says on their site that they’re only open till 10. I had a constituent from Frankston say to me that when they contacted the urgent care clinic, they were told that they needed to be there by 8:30 p.m. because that was as late as they could take in one, because obviously they needed to get through their work,” Senator Jess Walsh said.

In response, Senator Katy Gallagher, minister for public service, said on some occasions some clinics may not open during the advertised hours due to workforce shortages and patient-related factors.

“I don’t know the specific circumstances of the one you have read, but that might have been a consideration,” Sen. Gallagher said.

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Sen. Walsh also questioned the accuracy of the figure—42 Urgent Care Clinics not operating for the advertised hours—saying that clinic operators may have given the federal government “misleading” information.

“I’m just wondering whether you’re concerned that these clinics are providing you with information that suggests that they’re open for hours than they’re not open for, and that you think that the clinics are misleading in terms of when they’re open,” Sen. Walsh said.

Sen. Gallagher said that under the Albanese government’s funding arrangements, it is expected that urgent care clinics provide the government with accurate data.

“So if they’ve provided us something incorrect, absolutely, that’s concerning,” Sen. Gallagher said.

According to federal health minister Mark Butler, the largest proportion of patients to visit urgent care clinics have been children, with approximately 1 in 3 visits from someone under 15 years old.

Additionally, 1 in 3 visits has taken place on the weekend, while on weekdays, 1 in 5 visits has taken place at 6 p.m. or later.

“The Medicare UCCs will mean people across the country over summer who need urgent but not acute care, can get it quickly even if it’s outside standard hours—and all they’ll need is their Medicare card,” Mr. Butler said in January.

Function of Urgent Care Clinics

Urgent care clinics were setup by the Albanese government with the goal of alleviating strain on the often overstretched emergency department. The government announced it would spend $358.5 million ($US234 million) over five years to set up 58 urgent care clinics.

Nationally, the trend has been for people to wait longer to see a doctor or nurse in an emergency department.

In 2022–23, 8.8 million people presented to an emergency department, with 65 percent of patients seen on time, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Urgent care clinics will see cases related to minor infections, minor fractures, sprains, sports injuries, neck and back pain, urinary tract infections (UTIs), sexually transmitted infections (STIs), minor cuts, insect bites and rashes, minor eye and ear problems, respiratory illness, gastroenteritis, and mild burns.

Additionally, these clinics are open “from early morning till late at night, 7 days a week” and are bulk billed, according to the health department.

“We’ll be trying to keep the urgent clinic for what it’s designed for—to take pressure off the emergency department,” Hobart’s Ochre Health chairman Dr. Ross Lamplugh told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“If somebody is having an infarction [heart attack], it’s pretty silly to turn up here because we’re going to have to just transfer them back to the hospital,” Dr. Lamplugh said.

“But at the same time, if someone does turn up here with chest pain and it turns out they’re having an infarction, we’ll have the doctors trained, the nurses trained, and the equipment to manage until we can actually transfer them.”

AMA Not Convinced

However, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has previously criticised the urgent care clinics, saying they will do little to relieve the stretched hospital system.

“These centres will do little to relieve the hospital logjam, will further fragment care, and will unfairly compete with nearby general practices, which, without this government funding, will not be able to keep their doors open after hours,” AMA President Dr. Omar Khorshid said.

“If Labor wants to improve access to after-hours care for Australians, an obvious step would be to amend the definition of ‘after hours’ to commence at 6pm on weekdays and 12 noon on a Saturday.

“This will increase the Medicare rebate for Australians accessing these services and therefore reduce out-of-pocket costs.

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