Primary Health Networks of the Future

The extraordinary circumstances of 2020 and 2021 highlighted the important role that primary health care providers and Primary Health Networks (PHNs) should play during a crisis.

While there is much goodwill and commitment from primary health care providers, they struggle to maximise existing capabilities for response, relief and recovery, without coordination, leadership and support. This highlights a more systemic challenge for the sector; one which PHNs of the future are keen to support.

In 2015 the Australian Government’s PHN Program established 31 PHNs across Australia to strengthen primary health care and improve patient centred service integration. In Western Australia, WA Primary Health Alliance (WAPHA) was selected through a competitive tender process to oversee the three Western Australian PHNs – Perth North, Perth South and Country WA.

The PHN program was independently evaluated in 2018 and found to be well progressed in achieving early outcomes against the initial objectives. Through increased understanding of local health needs, the development of effective partnerships fostering integration (particularly with Health Service Providers and State/Territory equivalents) and innovative ways of commissioning evidence based primary health care services, the PHN program demonstrated it could influence the efficiency and effectiveness of medical services.

Subsequent PHN reviews have shown PHNs are taking a leadership position within their communities to foster the development and performance of the primary health care sector and working strategically towards integration across primary, acute and aged care sectors.

The recent Addendum to the to the National Health Reform Agreement 2020-2025 re-defines the strategic objectives of PHNs:

  • Identifying the health needs of their local areas and development of relevant focused and responsive services
  • Commissioning health services to meet health needs in their region
  • Improving the patient journey through developing integrated and coordinated services
  • Providing support to clinicians and service providers to improve patient care
  • Facilitating the implementation of primary health care initiatives and programs
  • Being efficient and accountable with strong governance and management

PHNs feature prominently in the National Health Reform Agenda. Their role is central throughout the Primary Health Reform Steering Group’s 20 Draft Recommendations to inform the National 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan, the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry Report into Mental Health and the 2021/22 Federal Budget Aged Care priorities.

Primary health care is a vital part of Australia’s healthcare system, and never more so than during a crisis. Although Commonwealth and State agencies have overall responsibility for on-the-ground disaster management during natural disasters and health emergencies, PHNs can coordinate a strong primary health care response where and when needed, reducing pressure on the acute sector. It is essential that disaster management is integrated and coordinated between all key stakeholders and the role of primary health care and PHNs is supported by all levels of government.

WAPHA continues to be a key contributor to the vaccine rollout in WA, having supported 583 general practices state-wide to take part in the vaccine rollout – with many now providing both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

This cohort includes 14 Commonwealth Vaccination Clinics (also known as GP Respiratory Clinics) that deliver COVID-19 vaccines as well as crucial assessment and testing of COVID-19. Considering the evolving COVID-19 outbreaks in other states, these clinics play an increasingly critical role in keeping our communities safe.

WAPHA is also assisting the Australian Government in the coordination, planning and delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine to residents and staff of residential aged care facilities across WA.  In these endeavours, close engagement with GPs, practice teams and peak organisations has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of WAPHA’s COVID-19 response strategy.

by Learne Durrington, WA Primary Health Alliance Chief Executive Officer