Public patients to get scans in private clinics to cut delays
People with suspected cancer symptoms are to be sent to private clinics for ultrasound scans from the end of this month, with urgent cases waiting no more than five days.
The pilot scheme, across nine counties, will allow GPs who need to have their patient undergo pelvic and abdominal ultrasound, to have a scan in clinics run by the private diagnostics operator, Euromedic.
The outsourcing development follows revelations in the Irish Independent this week that lack of direct access to ultrasound in some areas of the country means GPs are waiting up to seven weeks for an urgent appointment for a patient who could have ovarian cancer.
The Irish College of General Practitioners said routine cases can take months, because the patient has to be seen in an outpatient clinic first.
The scheme will roll out to eight primary care sites which have the poorest access to ultrasounds.
The key aim is to reduce the risks of delayed diagnosis.
Under the pilot scheme, to be run over a year, GPs will electronically refer prioritised patients with medical or GP visit cards to Euromedic.
It will see urgent patients in five days and non-urgent cases in 10 days.
The scheme will benefit patients who are covered by medical or GP visit cards - but not all patients needing scans will be included in the scheme.
A report should issue to the GP within 24 hours.
A Department of Health document said surveys conducted by the ICGP and the National Clinical Programme for Radiology indicated that between 20-25pc of GPs have no direct access to pelvic and abdominal ultrasound.
"For those who do have direct access, the waiting times are very varied and can range from one to 120 days," it warned.
It pointed out that direct access to ultrasound is provided by hospital departments and is dependent on the needs of the inpatient case load.
"Some hospitals, particularly in the west and south have limited or no access for GP referrals for ultrasound."
The scheme will be evaluated in 12 months and a decision taken on whether it be extended full time, said a spokesman for Health Minister Leo Varadkar.
The minister has acknowledged a two-tier system exists in some areas with patients who have health insurance getting a scan within days.
GPs are concerned about delays in a range of diagnostics and said patients are having to pay out of their own pockets in many cases in order to secure a diagnosis.
Dr Mark Murphy spokesman for the ICGP said GPs are 'on guard' about all symptoms, all the time.
A risk of disease is always there, and diagnostics are essential to rule it in or out.