Belfast Telegraph

GPs can help solve health crisis

By Dr John O'Kelly

We enter a new year with the same problems in the health service as plagued it in 2014. The crisis in A&Es has been well documented while the explosion in demand for general practice continues to be ignored. Recent events underline a wider problem within our healthcare system, as both hospitals and GPs can do little more than fire-fight.

There are increasing dema nds from a population which is getting older and suffering from more chronic illness. We have the lowest ratio of GPs per population in the UK, one in four is over the age of 55, there are severe problems in getting young doctors to become GPs, and many GPs are leaving the profession.

As a result, the number of GP practices has reached a 24-year low, with each GP surgery in the region now providing care to 500 more people than just 10 years ago. If GP services are not invested in, patient care will be put at risk.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Health professionals remain committed to providing the highest quality of care to our patients and succeed, on the whole, despite the challenges facing them. Transforming Your Care, with the emphasis on care closer to people's homes, offers the way forward but the community sector needs proper funding.

GPs are delivering fresh, new ways of delivering patient care through Federations. We need the health minister to grasp the nettle and make brave decisions. General practice only receives 8.3% of health service spending and we need this to be increased to 11%, allowing us to tackle waiting times and deliver longer appointments for those who need them, helping us keep patients out of hospital.

It will allow us to increase GP numbers and invest in out-of-hours services, district nursing, health visiting and pharmacies. Together we can provide real, cost-effective solutions.

We cannot continue with the present pathway and mind-set which has failed patients so far. We have all too sadly seen that stopgap funding each time there is a crisis in A&E does not work.

Our patients deserve better. We need to see an end to this sticking plaster approach, or else I'm afraid we should be preparing for "groundhog day" in January 2016.

Dr John O'Kelly is Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland

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