Many older people in Ireland are being cheated out of precious time by having to endure long and painful delays on public waiting lists for a new hip or other surgery, according to the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO).
Family doctors are witnessing the hardship of older patients who are frequently waiting well over two years just to see a specialist before being consigned to another waiting list for surgery, said IMO president Dr Padraig McGarry.
"The big blockages are in orthopaedics and in ear, nose and throat specialities reflecting our ageing population."
He has seen patients deteriorate as they languish on the waiting list for two years or longer.
"They are back in with the GP in the meantime who gives them medication which can affect their health in other ways by causing them gastrointestinal problems.
"For someone in their 70s, two years in ongoing pain is a long time out of their lives. Time is precious as a patient gets older and they are losing their independence on the waiting list," he warned.
The vacancies for around 520 hospital specialists were contributing to the waiting lists and the problem needed to be addressed by the start of talks on reversing the pay gap between newly recruited consultants and longer serving colleagues, the Co Longford GP added.
The most recent waiting list figures showed there are 564,829 patients in the queue to see a specialist and another 68,807 patients needing surgery.
However, he said from next year patients who are over 75 and have medical cards will be entitled to avail of a new scheme which aims to help those with chronic long-term diseases to manage their condition better.
The scheme, which will see doctors who join up get a higher fee, will offer two specialised sessions with a GP and nurse each year for patients who have diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and COPD, a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.
"It should displace some of the ad-hoc visits patients with these conditions make to GPs during the year," he told the Irish Independent.
"It has been shown that structured care like that has had significant health benefits. A midlands diabetic plan reduced cardiovascular risk in patients by 50pc."
It is part of a four-year roll-out of the scheme which will be gradually extended to other age groups.
The scheme is part of the €210m settlement with GPs and the Department of Health which will see the cuts in fees to doctors imposed during the recession gradually reversed.
The first payment was made last month and the hope is that more GPs will see a future in setting up practice in Ireland and relieve the pressures that have seen some practices closing their doors to new patients, he added.
Commenting on plans to extend free GP care, already available to under-sixes, to older children, Dr McGarry said it would need to be done on a phased basis to allow doctors to cope.
It may be possible to extend it to the under-sevens but a fee would need to be negotiated and it would be a matter for GPs to sign up.
The under-sixes continued to put pressure on services, particularly out-of-hours GP care, he added.