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Australia’s healthcare system

5-minute read

The Australian healthcare system has many different types and tiers of services available to help you. It provides a wide range of services, from population health and prevention through to general practice and community health, emergency health services and hospital care, and rehabilitation and palliative care.

This article provides you with some information to help you understand the different types of health care available and how you can access them.

Your contact with the healthcare system will often begin with general practices and emergency departments (EDs), which act as the main gateways to other health services, including diagnostic tests, specialist consultations, hospital admission and inpatient care.

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Watch these videos to learn which services are best for your health needs.

General practice and primary healthcare

Primary health care is the first point of call for most people for most illnesses. It's delivered in a variety of settings, including at general practices, community health centres and at home.

Primary care is provided by doctors, along with community nurses, dentists, pharmacists and other allied health professionals.

Allied health

Allied health practitioners are trained health professionals who are not doctors, dentists or nurses.

They can help you manage your physical or mental health, through services including diagnosis, treatment or rehabilitation. Learn more about allied health practitioners.

After-hours general practitioner services

Many general practices are only open during business hours. However, there are several after-hours options if you can't find a general practice open.

The free government-funded after-hours GP helpline can help. You can speak to a registered nurse who will ask you questions about your health. They will provide you with information and advice. If needed, a GP will call you back within the hour.

After-hours doctor call-out services are available in major cities and centres. These are private services and a doctor can come to your home. In some cases, this service may be covered by Medicare.

Emergency departments (EDs)

Emergency departments (ED)s are able to treat patients who need urgent medical or surgical care. Most EDs are located in, and operated by, public hospitals throughout Australia.

EDs are designed to deal with acute (severe and sudden) illnesses and life-threatening medical emergencies. Non-acute, less serious conditions are best dealt with by a general practice.

If you are not sure whether your medical condition is urgent, contact your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

If you think you have a medical emergency, immediately dial triple zero (000).

Specialist services

Medical specialists work in a specific area of medicine, such as cardiology or dermatology. They may work in private practice, and within a private hospital, and/or in the public hospital system. For a specialist visit to be covered by Medicare, either partly or completely, you will need a referral from your GP.

Public and private hospitals

Hospital services in Australia are provided by both the public and private sectors. Public hospitals are owned and managed by state and territory governments.

Medicare provides access to free treatment and accommodation in a public hospital for Australian residents and overseas visitors from countries with a reciprocal arrangement.

You can choose to have Medicare cover only, or a combination of Medicare and private health insurance coverage.

If you have private health insurance, you get some funding to cover the costs of care in a private hospital. You are also able to use a public hospital, although you may be charged for it. Your private health insurance may cover some of the costs.

Medicines and prescriptions

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) ensures that Australians have access to affordable medicines. The PBS subsidises the cost of prescription medicines so that Australians can access a wide range of medicines without having to pay full price.

Medicines are also available over the counter, without a prescription, but these are generally not subsidised.

Medicines on the PBS must first be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which also regulates vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins and minerals, medical devices, blood and blood products.

My Health Record

My Health Record is an online summary of your key health information. It allows you to share your health information with doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers if you want to. The information is secure and you have control over who sees the information.

Primary health networks (PHNs)

Primary health networks (PHNs) are independent, government-funded organisations. They aim to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of health services, particularly for disadvantaged groups, and improve the coordination of medical care across the healthcare system.

There are 31 PHNs across Australia. Learn more about PHNs.

Local hospital networks (LHNs)

Local hospital networks (LHNs) are responsible for a group of local hospitals, or an individual hospital, linking services within a region.

LHNs are known by different names in different states. For example, they are known as ‘local health districts' (LHDs) in NSW and ‘hospital and health services' in Queensland. The National Health Funding Body has an LHN directory.

Differences across Australia

While some aspects of the Australian healthcare system are the same nationwide — for example, Medicare is the same wherever you are — others vary depending on where you live. There are differences between states, and there are differences between the city and rural and remote areas.

For example, both city and country people usually have good access to nurses but doctors, and especially specialists, are concentrated in the cities.

Where can I find more information?

You can find more information about the Australian health system at the Department of Health website.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2020

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