Your Guide to Understanding the Australian Health System

australian health system

This article is sponsored by Medibank

Healthcare is very different in each country. If you are sick and require medical attention, where you go for help in Australia might not be the same as in your home country. So, as an international student, it’s vital that you understand how the system works in Australia. 

This guide will take you through some important information you need to know about the Australian health system.

What’s the difference between a GP/medical clinic and hospital?

One of the most important elements of Australian healthcare is understanding whether you should visit a General Practitioner (GP) or go to hospital when you need medical help. In Australia you must remember that:

Hospitals are often for emergencies

(or pre-planned procedures/operations)

GPs are for non-emergencies

You should generally only go to a hospital if you are seriously hurt or sick and require urgent medical attention. This includes things like:

  • A major injury
  • An accident such as a broken bone
  • A heart attack/chest pain
  • Problems with breathing or bleeding not stopping
  • Severe pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drug overdoses or poisoning

If you require urgent medical help, go to the Emergency Department (ER) of a hospital, or, if you need immediate assistance (in a life-threatening emergency) call Triple Zero (000) right away for an ambulance.

If you visit the ER for a non-emergency medical issue, it’s likely that you will be required to wait around for long periods of time. This is because patients will be seen based on the seriousness of their case.

You should see a GP or visit a medical clinic for non-emergencies. This includes things like:

  • Flu or the common cold *refer to below, if you suspect you have COVID-19
  • Hay fever
  • Minor injuries
  • Stomach aches
  • Ongoing worry, stress, sadness or mental health concerns
  • If you think you might be pregnant

A GP is a doctor who will be able to provide you with advice on how to manage your health concerns. They can prescribe medication and refer you to services like X-ray and blood testing. They can also provide a referral to a specialist doctor, such as a psychiatrist, orthopedic surgeon or gynecologist. 

If you need to see a GP, make an appointment in advance. You can search ‘Local GP’ online to find the closest to where you live or use Health Direct. If the GP gives you a prescription for medication, you will need to take it to a pharmacy to obtain the medication.

 If they refer you to a specialist doctor, you will need to organise a separate appointment with the specialist. In some cases, medical clinics might have X-ray or blood testing facilities on-site, meaning you just need to move to a separate part of the medical clinic. Alternatively, you might need to make a new appointment at a radiology or pathology clinic.

Public vs private

Medicare is the public health system that gives some Australian residents free or discounted health services. If you’re from a country with a Reciprocal Health Care Agreement (RHCA) you might receive some Medicare benefits, which may be known as Reciprocal Medicare.

The private healthcare system (which Medibank is part of) complements the public healthcare system, or if you’re not eligible for Medicare, it helps replace it. Medibank provides private health insurance (also known as overseas health cover) to overseas students, visitors and workers to help with the cost of services provided in the private healthcare system. This includes emergency ambulance trips and a range of treatments as a private patient in a private or a public hospital.

What does Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC) actually include?

International students are generally not covered by the public (Medicare) health system. It will be compulsory that you get OSHC to cover your stay in Australia, however some exceptions may apply if you are a student from Sweden, Norway, or Belgium. Depending on which plan you choose, most basic OSHC policies will either fully or partially cover: 

  • Out-of-hospital medical services, such as visits to a GP or specialist 
  • Public (as a private patient) and private hospital stays and in-hospital medical services 
  • Certain medications prescribed by a doctor 
  • Emergency ambulance trips to the hospital

Check with your OSHC provider for a comprehensive list of what they will cover and how to claim for policy inclusions.

Should I go to a GP or the hospital if I am displaying COVID-19 symptoms?

In response to COVID-19, you should always follow the local guidelines regarding testing protocol to avoid saturation of medical resources, but in general the best practice is:

  1. If you want to talk to someone about your symptoms, call the National Coronavirus Helpline for advice on 1800 020 080 (it’s open 24/7)
  2. If you are displaying symptoms and are required to seek medical assistance, you can visit a GP or go to the hospital, but you must call in advance and explain your symptoms, travel history and whether you had any contact with someone who has coronavirus. You will be asked to take certain precautions before your appointment.
  3. Your doctor will tell you if you should be tested for COVID-19. You will only be tested if you meet certain criteria. The doctor will refer you to a specific testing facility.

For more information on how to seek medical attention, click here.

More information on the Australian healthcare system

Medibank has put together a handy Pocket Guide to the Aussie Health System with further details on healthcare in Australia, along with a useful healthcare glossary for any terms you might not have encountered before. You can download the PDF here, print it, fold it, and have it on hand for emergencies.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and should not be taken as health advice.