Doctors' surgeries across Northern Ireland need to extend opening hours at night and weekends if patients' access to GP appointments is to be improved, a major report has said.
The recommendation was made in a survey published today which revealed that 18.8% of patients had to wait more than two weeks to see their family doctor.
Almost three-quarters of people had to wait more than five days for an appointment and more than a quarter of patients – 26.5% –said they were "not happy" with the barriers they face when trying to see their GP.
The suggestions in the Patient Client Council report of longer opening hours was made after just over half of all patients polled – 56.4% – said they would be in favour of weekend practices.
But it has led to a warning from the Royal College of GPs that serious investment is needed if practice hours of doctors who are already "working absolutely flat-out" would be extended.
The research involving over 8,000 patients also showed it was particularly important for employed people, 70.2% of which said practice opening hours was the one thing they would change.
Other key findings revealed that despite 73.5% saying they were happy with access to services, just over half of questionnaire respondents (51.7%) found getting through to their practice by phone 'not easy'.
And 63% of people said that getting to speak to a doctor on the phone was 'not easy', while 50% said getting to speak to a nurse by phone was 'not easy'.
It also emerged that some practices were using a premium rate line for appointments. One patient who participated in a focus group spoke of their shock at the the use of an 0844 number.
"Very expensive especially since you normally have to hold for long periods of time," they said.
Another patient said: "One time in the last 12 months I needed to make an appointment and it took me a full working week to get through on the telephone. I was ringing continuously but the line was constantly engaged. This is ridiculous and very frustrating and not acceptable."
Dr John O'Kelly, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners Northern Ireland, said the college is not opposed to extending hours in principle but are concerned it would be delivered in an "underfunded manner".
"The college is supportive of any way that would improve good quality access to patients but at the moment GPs throughout the UK and Northern Ireland are working absolutely flat-out," he said. "We have increasing demands on our services. We do about 10.5 million consultations a year for 7.96% of the budget. Our consultations are twice that of the Republic of Ireland."
Dr O'Kelly said there has been a "chronic" underinvestment in General Practice.
"In Northern Ireland we have seen a reduction in five years of 8.22%. That is about £21.2m taken out of GP services. And we have severe manpower problems."
He said if the Government really wanted to help GPs provide the high-quality care that patients deserve, it must increase funding to 11% of the NHS budget by 2017.
BY MAEVE HULLY
Good GP services are those that not only promote diagnosis, treatment, communication and preventative health care but also provide care which is easily accessible to patients.
Good access to general practitioner services means different things to different people. It means flexibility and timely access based on the needs of patients themselves.
Recent concerns about lengthy waits and timely access to care in Northern Ireland have shifted the focus towards the need for more information regarding people's experiences in accessing health and social care services.
There are strong arguments for concern about people's experiences in the process of accessing care from their GP. Those who experience difficulty may delay seeking and obtaining treatment.
Getting an appointment with your GP can be very difficult. It can be particularly hard to see a doctor if you wake up feeling unexpectedly unwell and need an urgent appointment.
But there are some examples of good practice. Some GP surgeries have walk-in arrangements for people first thing in the morning; others have nurse practitioners who will see people and prioritise patients who need to see a doctor quickly.
Waiting four or five days or even longer for an appointment is unsatisfactory for many people who want or need to speak to a doctor much sooner.