In Australia, New Guidelines for GPs May Boost Uptake of ‘Underutilized’ Interpreters

Australia Healthcare Interpreting

The Australian Department of Health has issued a fact sheet that clarifies how general practitioners (GPs) should bill when consultation times are extended due to the use of an interpreter.

GPs may reasonably bill for a longer attendance time when an interpreter is required to facilitate a patient consultation, according to the new guidance dated May 24, 2022. This applies to both in-person and telehealth services.

The clarification was welcomed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). Rebecca Farley, Chairperson of Specific Interests Refugee Health at RACGP, said the guideline “supports GPs to engage interpreters where appropriate, which is an essential component of delivering care.”

Australian interpreters are “underutilized in general practice care due to a number of disincentives and barriers,” according to RACGP President, Karen Price. One of these disincentives, up until now, has been a general uncertainty among GPs over when longer consultation times can be billed.

In Australia’s public health system, GPs are typically reimbursed for each consultation under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) according to a specific time-tiered attendance item. If an interpreter is needed for a consultation, GPs may reach out to the National Translation and Interpreting Service or “TIS” to access interpreters via phone or video, or book an on-site interpreter.

The use of an interpreter may in some cases extend consultation time from the typical 20 minutes to around 40 minutes, which falls under a different attendance item bracket and has a fee roughly three times higher.

The Department of Health’s statement paves the way for GPs to draw on interpreting resources more often; that is, provided that GPs understand the need for language support and are aware of the new guidance on billing.

“When language barriers exist, we do need to take extra time to make sure we are communicating effectively with our patients. I encourage all GPs to take full advantage of this fact sheet and spread the word,” said Price.

The RACGP President went on to point out that “boosting uptake of interpreters in general practice is more important than ever to reduce health inequality.”

Rising Demand for Healthcare Interpreting

More than 27% of the Australian population was born overseas and more than 5.5 million people use a language other than English at home, according to the 2021 Census published in May 2022.

A significant proportion of the population may, therefore, require language support during healthcare consultations. According to Farley, “being able to communicate effectively with our patients is an essential component of delivering healthcare.” 

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She added, “For patients with low-English proficiency, working with professional, credentialed interpreters is crucial to being able to [deliver healthcare].”

TIS is currently recruiting to expand its pool of registered interpreters to meet what it described as the “ongoing growth in demand for interpreting services in Australia.” TIS currently covers more than 100 languages and provides services to more than 60,000 clients.