The introduction of free GP care for children under six is exacerbating emergency department (ED) overcrowding with inundated GPs referring more children to hospital, according to a leading ED consultant.
Dr Chris Luke, based at the Mercy University Hospital (MUH) in Cork, said he understood that since last July’s introduction of free visits to the family doctor for under-6s, there had been “a 60% surge in the number of under-6s at many GP surgeries around the country”.
Likewise, there were reports of a 30%-50% surge in the number of under-6s attending EDs in Cork, he said.
“If you invite under-6s into the health service, they will come. It’s the old ‘If you build it they will come’. We have seen in the last 15 years that the more healthcare facilities that you build, the more people will avail of them. But it doesn’t seem to help the problem at the heart of the service. It doesn’t matter how much more healthcare services you provide, the work is kind of like a gas, it keeps expanding,” Dr Luke told Newstalk Breakfast.
While the public is constantly being told that primary care, which includes GP care, is part of the solution to the crisis in hospital care, in reality general practice had been “profoundly depleted” in terms of resources, Dr Luke said.
At the same time, GPs are expected to do more with less, including treating the under-6s and the over-70s who don’t pay for treatment. Free treatment for these two groups represents the first two steps in the Government’s plan to eventually roll-out free GP care to all.
Dr Luke said there was a “bed stock problem” that dated back to the ‘70s and ‘80s “when health economists said we’d be so efficient by now, that we wouldn’t really even need beds”.
However, against the backdrop of a growing ageing population, this advice had proved a “mismatch between predicted efficiency and reality”.
Trolley numbers at MUH were not as bad as a decade ago, Dr Luke said, but were still “pretty severe”, with a “built-in inflation of about 4% each year” in the country’s EDs, he said.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman, Billy Kelleher, said the situation in EDs is “effectively as bad as it was this time last year”.
“Shortly before Christmas, the [Health] Minister [Leo Varadkar] was telling us how much things had improved in emergency departments, yet here we are again with the annual January crisis in our hospitals. And so far this year the figures are worse than in 2014 and 2013,” Mr Kelleher said.
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