GP visits by the under-sixes triple as doctor crisis looms
Parents are now bringing their children to the doctor six times a year - as opposed to just two times before free care for the under-sixes was introduced.
New HSE figures show GP visits by this age group have tripled, compared to when their parents had to pay for the service.
The surge in visits comes as doctors' union the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) launched its pre-Budget submission and warned 244 GPs will retire in the next two years.
The doctors said the proposal to extend free GP care to 500,000 people a year, with the whole population covered over five years, is "unrealistic".
Free GP care was given to under-sixes by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as health minister in 2015.
But yesterday GP spokesman Dr Padraig McGarry revealed that out-of-hours doctors' services appear to have borne the brunt of the rise in visits by the under-sixes.
Asked if parents are bringing their child to the doctor for minor complaints, he said this was unclear - but the "threshold for a visit" is now lower.
Dr McGarry said the union is currently in talks with the Department of Health on a new contract for GPs, but they have yet to get to the stage of agreement on what is needed, and no estimates of costings have yet been reached.
He also spoke about the Sláintecare report, drawn up by a cross-party Oireachtas committee, setting out a 10-year blueprint for a one-tier health service.
He said it "does not adequately address the current and impending shortage of GPs, the significant underinvestment in GP services and the need to negotiate and resource a new GP contract".
IMO president Dr Ann Hogan said: "We are now seeing the cumulative affect of almost a decade of austerity in the health services, an aging population and a manpower crisis amongst doctors.
"Any of these challenges would be difficult to address in isolation. Together they are potentially devastating."
She added: "Bed occupancy rates are far in excess of recommended norms, to the extent that they now pose a risk to patient mortality. People are dying in Irish hospitals because of overcrowding."
Dr Mattew Sadlier, a consultant psychiatrist, said walking into some hospitals now is the same as doing so in the 1890s. This is because of the lack of technology and the over-reliance on paper based systems.
"It can mean a patient is in hospital for two days before all of their records are accessible," he added.
Dr Paddy Hillery, the IMO junior doctor spokesman, said some of his colleagues are still being forced to work dangerously long shifts over 24-36 hours.
"This is illegal," he added. Dr Hillery who works in a hospital emergency department, said they are seeing the knock-on effects of patients on waiting lists for surgery or an outpatient appointment coming to A&E in a bid to access healthcare.
The IMO said there needs to be a substantial increase in health spending in the Budget .
It argues that the commitment in the Programme for Government to increase spending by 3pc will not be enough to maintain existing services, let alone provide for expansion and the recruitment of more doctors.