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Chronically-ill Australians miss out on exercise treatments

Victoria University research shows millions of eligible patients are missing out on referrals to Medicare-funded exercise physiology treatments.

Associate Professor Melinda Craike found that only a tiny percentage of the nearly 7,000 GPs surveyed across Australia over a recent seven-year period referred patients to exercise physiologists.

This is despite Medicare offering up to five sessions a year for patients to receive treatment from an allied health provider – which includes exercise physiologists – under its chronic disease management program.

Dr Craike said the results are surprising given that more than 11 million Australians report they live with chronic diseases such as diabetes, mental health conditions, or cardiovascular conditions that are proven to be helped by exercise.

The research, an analysis of the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health GP-patient encounter data, is believed to be the first in the world to examine referrals to exercise physiologists, the characteristics of doctors who referred them, and of the patients they referred. 

The data found:

  • female GPs referred patients to exercise physiologists twice as often as male GPs
  • older male GPs showed the lowest referral rates to exercise physiologists
  • the most referred patients were aged 45-64, from regional areas, and from English-speaking backgrounds
  • rates of referral to exercise physiologists for mental health conditions were particularly low.

“Although referral rates to exercise physiologists increased over the years, our analysis shows there is a need to educate GPs, and to advocate for exercise medicine to be embedded into medical schools,” she said.

“Culturally-tailored programs for patients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may also be required.”

Exercise physiology is a growing field in which accredited and university-trained specialists use exercise to prevent and manage chronic disease and prevent injuries.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport

Melinda Craike is an Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health in VU’s Institute for Health and Sport and a Principal Research Fellow at VU’s Australian Health Policy Collaboration

She is available for comment.

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