Parents using emergency GP care 'as routine'
Out-of-hour GP services are in crisis as they are being "overwhelmed" with visits from parents availing of free medical care for their children.
During the Christmas period, the service saw a 30pc-plus increase across the country compared with last year.
The significant rise is being put down to the introduction of the free under-six GP service.
According to many doctors involved in general practice, it is having a big knock-on effect while the country struggles with outbreaks of flu and the winter vomiting bug.
Chris Goodey, chief executive of the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), told the Irish Independent that the out-of-hour GP service was supposed to be used for emergencies only, but parents were now using it as a routine service.
"When little Johnny got a cough or cold before the free service was introduced, you might have waited 24 hours before bringing him to the out-of-hours service, but now many parents are using it as soon as their kids feel a little ill," he said.
"We're not in the business of discouraging parents from visiting their GP, but the reality is that we just don't have the capacity to keep up with the demand."
He added that people with medical cards attended GPs about six times a year, compared with a private patient average of twice a year.
The NAGP chief executive added that out-of-hour GP services across the country were "completely overwhelmed" during the Christmas period.
"The average increase over Christmas compared to last year is about 30pc and in some areas it is a lot more," he said.
According to the latest figures from the HSE, 2,274 GPs have signed under-six contracts - which represents 93pc of the 2,452 with General Medical Services contracts.
Mr Goodey went on to say that he believed the whole health service was creaking because there just was not enough money there.
"General practice has had well over a billion euro stripped out of it over the past five years," he said.
Dr Gary Stack, medical director of SouthDoc, said its doctors saw a rise in demand of nearly 50pc over the holiday period, with 12,615 patients this winter, compared with 8,662 last year.
"The under sixes aren't the only part of the problem. There is a huge manpower crisis in general practice. This all goes back to the cuts we've had imposed on us over the years," Dr Stack said. "All the newly qualified GPs are emigrating, which is really a big disgrace."
To help parents and others to read and manage the symptoms of minor illnesses, the Irish College of General Practitioners has collaborated with the HSE and the Irish Pharmacy Union to set up the website, undertheweather.ie.
The service offers a learning guide on how to manage everyday illnesses.