Two-tier waiting lists for patients seeking vital scans
Public patients are waiting more than three months on average for an ultrasound scan that a private patient can get in four days, according to a survey.
GPs refer patients for the ultrasound scan to check symptoms and it can detect tumours, cysts or other abnormalities in the pelvic and abdominal area.
In some cases the delay for public patients can be much longer and, at its most extreme, it took 42 weeks with the shortest wait just one day.
The postal survey of family doctors by the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) found the two-tier system is particularly acute when it comes to access to diagnostics.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar has listed better access to diagnostics scans for GPs as a priority in his recently-published 25-point plan for the health service during his term.
Only a minority of GPs still have direct access for patients who need to be checked, said the study in the Irish Medical Journal.
The results showed waiting times for a CT scan for a public patient takes an average of 12 weeks, compared to around five working days for somebody with health insurance.
The concern is that the delays may be affecting the outcomes of some patients who are found to have an illness. Around 10pc of GPs said they had no direct access for an MRI scan.
A public patient can wait on average 22 weeks for an MRI and the delay can vary from six days to 72 weeks.
It takes around five days for private patients.
One in four of the doctors does not have direct access to DEXA scanning which measures bone mineral density. For public patients the wait is an average of 24 weeks, in contrast to seven if they were private.
It pointed out that there has been a "rapid increase in the use of diagnostic imaging in recent years" and these investigations may not always be necessary.
There needs to be guidelines for GPs to better inform them on when to appropriately refer a patient for a scan, said the study.
It has been shown that access to diagnostic tests allows GPs to continue to manage a substantial number of patients who would otherwise have been referred to the hospital out-patient department.
There is also evidence that GPs may be advising some patients who face a long delay and need a diagnosis to go to already overcrowded hospital emergency departments.
"GPs are highly trained specialists who are currently constrained in delivering quality services to patients due to limited access to diagnostics in the public system," it warned. Better access would not just result in less delay for the patient but also a reduction in referrals to outpatient clinics and emergency departments.
The study also pointed out it would result in a reduction in admissions to hospital beds.