I was lucky to have a great GP. Then she went on maternity leave and my health care collapsed | El Gibbs

I didn’t realize how fragile my healthcare system was until my GP went on maternity leave and it all fell apart.

A lot has rightly been reported about the crisis in general practice, about the overload, the move away from mass billing and the decline in the number of doctors. But there hasn’t been much on how it affects disabled and sick people who rely on GPs more than most.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a really great GP over the past few years. She’s friendly, fun, curious and non-judgmental and works so, so hard. You and I have navigated my complex and administratively difficult healthcare system through a series of crises and then through the pandemic.

My GP is the lynchpin of my care as I see an ever-growing number of expensive specialists who don’t listen, don’t talk to each other, and aren’t interested in my ongoing healthcare. Some specialists have said they can’t help or don’t know what to do or there is nothing to treat me so I shouldn’t come back. Others have treated one part of my body without considering the effects on other parts and how they will respond to that particular treatment.

As each letter from a specialist arrived, my GP and I would puzzle it through, trying to understand what it meant and how it interacted with other letters, and figuring out what on earth I should do now.

She juggled me through 12 months of kidney failure; Adjust medications, run more tests, check in with me every few weeks to see how much more I can handle. We weighed all equally horrific options each time, and agonized over the time I had left on a particular drug that was vital but also harmful.

During the pandemic she knew I was both more likely to get Covid and at high risk if I was infected. She helped me process the ever-changing information and make good decisions about what I could and couldn’t do.

My GP checked medical journals and colleagues for good specialists, got in touch with the local hospital and worked out how I could get access to vaccines and antivirals for Covid.

This demanding and specialized work in supporting people with chronic illnesses and disabilities is neither recognized nor funded in the general practice, but many of our general practitioners do this every day.

I had been ill with at least one serious illness since I was a teenager, spending months in the hospital and visiting ambulances the rest of the time. On the road, I didn’t always have a family doctor who could provide that coordination and support while navigating nearly impenetrable medical systems.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has support coordinators who help disabled people navigate the complexities of the disability system. Such coordinators do not exist in the healthcare system, which is designed for casual or emergency care rather than chronic conditions.

The 2021 census asked about chronic diseases for the first time and found that there are millions of us with one or more serious long-term illnesses. My experience is not uncommon or uncommon, but it has little recognition in the funding or structures of our healthcare system.

Two months ago, my dear family doctor went on maternity leave to have her first baby. I knitted her a baby jacket, made a card and wished her well, not knowing what was going to happen. After all, the length of a pregnancy is reasonably predictable, so the doctor’s office was certainly prepared for that.

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I wasn’t the only person with a complex chronic illness who saw my GP. In recent years, she had mainly cared for people who needed this type of healthcare.

But the current GP funding crisis meant that the practice I had been a patient at for more than 15 years suddenly ran out of GPs and was unable to recruit one in time to manage all of my GP patients. I was left without a family doctor and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. My Covid safety plan unraveled and I was unable to access telemedicine or my regular medication. All those carefully made plans that were gone in a moment.

After months of trying to get an answer as to what to do with no answer, I had to look for another GP in a different office. I don’t have my medical records, an up-to-date list of blood test results, or medications, and I have little idea how to get them.

This isn’t the fault of my GP or even the doctor’s office, although I’m pretty mad at them. I understand the crisis they are in, but this crisis also affects me and many other sick and disabled people. Where are our voices in this discussion?

My health care shouldn’t be dependent on the benevolence of a single family doctor working ridiculous hours, and it shouldn’t fall apart anytime soon.

I want my GP to be well supported and have enough resources to manage and coordinate my care. I want her to be recognized for the skilled work she does in dealing with people with serious, complex chronic illnesses and disabilities. I want medical practices to be sustainable, to provide all necessary health and care services, and to recognize the importance of GPs in the lives of many sick and disabled people.

And I want those of us who need the healthcare system the most to have more say in how that system works and how it doesn’t work.

El Gibbs is a disabled person and an award-winning author specializing in disability and social issues. Gibbs’ work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, The Guardian, ABC and Eureka Street and can be found at elgibbs.com.au

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