Recently Dr Karen Price has been elected as the new President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). She will have to be patient as her term is set to take effect from the close of the RACGP’s Annual General Meeting on 30 November 2020. Associate Professor Ayman Shenouda will be Acting President until that time. Dr Price will succeed Shenouda, who assumed the role following the death of the late Dr Harry Nespolon. The highly respected and effective Dr Nespolon passed away in July following a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

The RACGP was established in 1958 and is Australia’s peak general practice representative organisation, it has more than 41,000 members working in or towards a career in general practice across metropolitan, regional and rural areas of the country. Nine in every 10 GPs are with the RACGP and they provided almost 160 million services to Australians. Over 420,000 Medicare item numbers are billed each day across the nations waiting rooms.

Six well credential doctors ran for the position of president of one of the most powerful lobby groups in the nation. They would prefer the word advocate no doubt, nevertheless President Price will have over 320 staff. During the financial year ended 30 June 2019, the Melbourne based College recorded a total surplus after tax of $7,368,578. They have a budget of over $83 million and have $120 million in total assets.

All six candidates used the digital election online platform provided by RACGP and this had a comprehensive listing of background material, CVs, slogans, stock photo images and Q&A transcripts. Their appeals for votes were instructive of issues that concern the membership like practice ownership, GP remuneration, burnout, workload, the rise and rise of corporate medicine and having their voice heard by the College board.

Over 30,000 doctors were eligible to vote and 4,050 ballots were cast in a preferential election that was won with the slogan of Let’s Rebuild General Practice together, Vote #1 KP. Unfortunately, Dr Shenouda learned the lesson that a full colour well formatted 4 page flyer does not always help an incumbent. The digital voter turnout was lower than the previous year but high for what is referred to as a professional body election. No ballots were informal or spoiled, and all were deemed valid. Unlike the recent US election, no hint of voter fraud was detected and no old fashioned ballot box stuffing occurred as there was no postal ballots mailed out; a lesson President Trump should take note of or at least the US Ambassador to Australia. Australian Elections Company Pty Ltd won the tender and ran the successful election for RACGP.

The College has struggled in recent years to meet the needs and aspirations of its 40,878 members. Ironically in their own annual report they highlight a renewed focus on members implying past mistakes one assumes. The former President focused on advocating on his members behalf without hindrance. His activities during the last federal election showed parliamentarians that the College was willing to engage in the political process to support patient access to GPs. The RACGP campaign activities revealed that they need to advocate for general practice on an ongoing basis, not just when an election is called. The RACGP believes it has a respectful relationship with ministers and parliamentarians on all sides of politics, which will assist with efforts to build ongoing engagement. This includes other medical groups like the AMA, RDAA, ACRRM, GPSA, GPRA, AGPN and patient lobbyists.

Former PM and Health minister Tony Abbott once quipped that when politicians take on any Doctors group they always lose. After all 2 million of us visit a GP every week and they can bend our ear if they like. It would be a Yes Minister type of politician who is brave to take on any of the medical colleges that have a combined lobby power of around $500 million a year.

The RACGP is very active and has made over 200 submissions to governments and other key stakeholders and continues to promote its public awareness campaign to increase community awareness and understanding of the profession and the crucial role GPs play in the community. Heading into 2021, the President elect will plan to reassert the role of general practice and adopt a ‘GPs first’ approach when meeting with the nation’s health leaders.

Dr Price said that general practice has been under-funded and underestimated for too long. “We know that primary care is the best available system to drive accessible quality care to all Australians no matter where they live, so we need to put general practice back on a sustainable funding footing. We must fight hard to get the resources we need to care for our patients and involve them in that fight for their social contract of health, and that includes working with national patient organisations. We are living in uncertain times, but there is reason for hope. The bushfires and the pandemic have demonstrated once again how vital primary care is when health crises strike and as President I will seize all opportunities for meaningful advocacy” Dr Price said.