People with free care twice as likely to visit GP
IRISH people in their 50s and over visit their family doctor more than twice as often if they have a medical or GP-visit card compared to patients who pay out of their own pockets, research has revealed.
The findings reveal those with free care go to their GP 5.8 times a year, compared to 2.3 visits for those who have to pay around €50 to €60 a time.
The higher visit rates are expected to fuel a demand for larger State fees by doctors who will be asked in the coming months to provide free visits to people over 70 - along with all children under six - as part of the Government's long-delayed proposal to make primary care more affordable.
Over-50s, including those with medical or GP cards, private health insurance or no cover, visit their GP 4.1 times a year on average, according to the research headed by Anne Nolan of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing in Trinity College.
When this is broken down, those with a medical or GP card only had an extra 1.5 visits a year. But those who had these State benefits - as well as their own private health insurance - went to their family doctor even more, with an additional 1.6 visits a year. Long-running talks on free GP care are now at the stage where doctors are trying to finding out how much they will be paid when they are offered new contracts.
Their fear is that once people have a free service they will be swamped by patients and will be unable to cope. The over-70s group tends to be the segment of the population with most illnesses.
The study on the over-50s is the first to be done on older age groups, with previous findings covering all generations also showing a medical card leaves people more likely to go to their doctor.
It pointed out that other factors influencing the number of GP visits in the older population include health need, particularly "self-assessed health status". "We found some evidence that the person's most usual form of transport is an important determinant of GP visiting among the older population," it added.
Those using public transport have fewer visits, although the effects of this are relatively low when compared to having a medical card or how they view their state of health.
The study said it is still unclear if all the GP visits among those who went more often were needed or whether it was an over-utilisation. Similarly, it is yet to be proven that other groups are not visiting their GP as often as they should.
"We cannot answer this question without much more detailed information on GP visits, although there is plenty of international evidence that user fees deter both necessary and unnecessary healthcare utilisation."
It has been previously mooted that the "free GP" care benefit could involve a nominal fee of around €5 per visit but this appears to have been shelved.
The hope is that the free GP care for the under-sixes and over-70s will be in place by the middle of the year. It is a matter for each doctor to accept or reject it.
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has said that, while it is up to each individual GP, he believes most will sign up to the Government scheme.