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Get back to the BEACH, Govt told

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AMA President Professor Brian Owler has urged the Federal Government to reverse its decision to axe funding for one of the most extensive and sustained studies of general practice in the world, arguing the move is “completely at odds” with its stated primary care focus.

In a decision that has shocked and dismayed medical practitioners and researchers, the long-running Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) program, which began tracking the activities of Australian GPs in 1998, is being wound up after the Federal Department of Health announced it would not be renewing funding for the research after the current contract expires on 30 June.

Professor Owler has written to Health Minister Sussan Ley urging her to reconsider the move, which he said was particularly ill-considered given major changes planned for primary care.

“Research into general practice and primary care attracts very little funding support in comparison to other parts of the health system,” the AMA President said. “The reality is that we need more of this type of research, not less.”

The Government’s decision to axe its funding for BEACH has come less than two week after Ms Ley unveiled the Health Care Homes initiative to give GPs a central role in improving the care of patients with chronic and complex disease. Simultaneously, the Government is trialling its My Health Record e-health record system and is persisting with a four-year freeze on Medicare rebates.

Professor Owler said the Commonwealth had contributed just $4.6 million of the $26 million that had been used to fund the BEACH program over the years.

“This is a very small investment that has delivered significant policy outcomes and, with all the changes planned for general practice and primary care, I think there is a very strong case to extend funding for the program,” he said.

The wealth of data on general practice that the program had collected had proven invaluable in driving evidence-based policy development, Professor Owler said, and warned that there was “no credible source of information and analysis that is capable of filling the gap that will be left when the program ceases”.

The program’s director, Professor Helena Britt of Sydney University’s Family Medicine Research Centre, said the Government’s decision to cease its contribution had come at a time when the program was already facing a funding crunch caused by a downturn in contributions from other sources including non-government organisations and pharmaceutical companies.

“BEACH has always struggled to gain sufficient funds each year,” Professor Britt said. “However, this notification comes when we also have a large shortfall in funding coming from other organisations…due to the closure of many government instrumentalities and authorities, and the heavy squeeze on pharmaceutical companies’ profits resulting from changes to the PBS.

“We therefore have no choice but to close the BEACH program.”

Professor Britt said she had been inundated with inquiries and messages of support from individuals and groups around the country and internationally.

Professor Britt said the BEACH data, which is drawn from an annual sample of GPs providing detailed information on everything from the hours they work to the diseases and other conditions they treat, was a unique resource, and the program’s closure would “leave Australia with no valid reliable and independent source of data about activities in general practice”.

“BEACH has been the only continuous national study of general practice in the world which relies on random samples of GPs, links management actions to the exact problem being managed, and provides extensive measurement of prevalence of diseases, multi-morbidity and adverse medication events,” a statement issued by the Family Medicine Research Centre said.

The data from the latest BEACH survey, which began in April last year and closed at the end of March this year, is being collated and Professor Britt said she hoped to issue a report on the results, possibly in mid-June.

Asked about the possibility of funding coming from other sources, Professor Britt said it was “early days”.

One of the biggest concerns is what will happen to the rich store of data accumulated through the program’s 18 years of operation, during which time more than 11,000 GPs have been surveyed.

Professor Britt said the data was used by a huge range of researchers and organisations, and her group was looking at ways to ensure people would continue to have access to it.

“We would be happy to find a place with a senior analyst who could take request to analyse the data for specific purposes,” she said. “We would like to be able to keep that access up there for at least a little while.”

Adrian Rollins