Labor made it easier for women to access medical abortions. So why are less than 5% of GPs providing them?

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Unclear laws, poor remuneration and stigma are still discouraging many GPs from providing the service.

The Labor Party has announced sweeping reforms to abortion access should it win at the next election: one part, committing to provide free abortions in public hospitals.

Labor would also establish an online community to support doctors providing medical terminations using the abortion pill, RU486, and review the Medicare rebate associated with this service.

RU486 was listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 2013 under the then-Health Minister Tanya Plibersek. The drugs - mifepristone and misoprostol - are used in ‘medical abortions’ -  a non-surgical method of terminating a pregnancy up to nine weeks gestation.

Doctors are required to complete a free three hour online training course to be certified to provide medical abortions.

But today, less than 5 percent of GPs are actually able to prescribe the drug.

That’s just 1,500 out of 35,000 GPs nationwide.

What’s the missing link?

Marie Stopes Australia CEO Dr Philip Goldstone said doctors remain discouraged by unclear abortion laws.

The practice only became legal in Queensland last year and is still illegal in South Australia and New South Wales, unless the woman’s or foetus’ life is in danger.

“Last year we had a doctor in Brisbane who was keen to provide medical termination services, but she wanted to wait until the legislation passed because she was concerned,” he said.

Dr Goldstone also noted that stigma is still a key barrier.

“I’m aware of some GPs who have wanted to provide medical termination services but other doctors within the practice have been oppose to it,” he said.

Providing medical terminations is poorly remunerated, says Dr Goldstone, which can be a disincentive for doctors.

“It can be time consuming with quite a lot of follow up, a busy GP may be concerned about the time involved,” he said.

The CEO of the Rural Doctors Associations Peta Rutherford said the small number of doctors who have chosen to prescribe the medication is particularly concerning for regional women.

“If a woman can’t access a termination locally, that may mean travel and time that woman simply cannot afford,” she said.

Any GP prescribing the drug also needs to negotiate with a pharmacist who is willing to stock and dispense it.

“This can be challenging in remote locations where there may only be one pharmacist,” says Ms Rutherford.

RU486 reforms

Speaking this morning, Shadow Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek said putting RU486 on the PBS hadn’t worked as well as she’d hoped.

Dr Goldstone said an online platform would help build a community of GPs providing the service.

“It will help build confidence in GPs providing,” he said.

“If they are out there on their own it can be daunting.”