Sunday 21 July 2019

Doctors struggling as free healthcare for under-sixes leads to surge in GP visits - study

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Eilish O’Regan

DOCTORS have had to struggle with a surge in visits by under-sixes since the children were given free GP care nearly three years ago, a new study confirmed today.

The controversial measure, introduced in mid-2015 by the then Health Minister Leo Varadkar, extended free GP care to every child under six regardless of their parents income.

It led to protests by GPs who warned their surgeries would be overwhelmed and sparked criticism that children of millionaires would benefit while many public patients were left in hospital queues.

The first investigation of the impact of the measure reveals today it led to a significant increase in visits by children under 6 years to both daytime  and out-of-hours services.

Visits to daytime GP surgeries went up 29pc and soared to 26pc in the out-of-hours .

The study by Trinity College involved examination of visitation data from eight GP practices in north Dublin and their local out-of-hours service (NorthDoc).

Over 300,000 face-to-face consultations occurring over one year before to one year after the introduction of free care were analysed.

The study also found that while use of daytime and out-of-hours services increased across all age categories over the study period, the under-sixes were responsible for a disproportionate amount of the increased workload.

“It is no surprise really that GP services are used more often when free,”  said  lead study author Dr Michael O’Callaghan, general practitioner and researcher at the School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health & Primary Care, Trinity College Dublin.

“This study shows conclusively that large numbers of additional children availed of GP services and availed of these services more often once they gained free access. Our study also demonstrates the ‘knock-on’ effect of the under –sixes  contract in the out-of-hours service, which experienced a disproportionately large spike in numbers of children under 6 attending.”

“GP services in Ireland are getting busier in general, and this was also demonstrated in this study, with GPs seeing more patients of all ages in the second year of the study. However, almost half of additional visits to the daytime services, and three quarter of the additional visits to the out-of-hours service were generated by the under 6s. As we have no reason to believe that the cohort experienced more ill health in the second year of the study, we can conclude that the large increases were simply as a result of the introduction of free GP care.”

Prof Tom O’Dowd, Fellow Emeritus, Public Health & Primary Care, Trinity, added: “This study shows that workload planning is required when any changes to GP access are made. If not, access to front line GP services will be undermined for everyone.”

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