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Top Northern Ireland GP blames waiting lists for emergency department referrals

No option: Dr Grainne Doran
No option: Dr Grainne Doran

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's hospital waiting list crisis is forcing GPs to send their patients to emergency departments (EDs), a leading doctor has said.

Rejecting any suggestion that family doctors are inappropriately referring patients to EDs, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland, Dr Grainne Doran, said it is frequently their only option as they struggle to treat patients.

An increasing number of people who need gall bladder operations, hip and knee replacements and treatment for agonising conditions like arthritis are waiting years for a first outpatient appointment. Even waiting times for potentially life-threatening conditions are creeping upwards as the health service here slips deeper into crisis.

As a result, GPs are being forced to refer patients to EDs in a desperate bid to speed up access to treatment.

Dr Doran was speaking after an emergency care consultant at Antrim Area Hospital addressed a packed-out waiting room this week and said: "Quite often, GPs kick for touch and send patients up here who don't need to be in an ED."

Dr Doran said: "GPs fully appreciate the pressure that our colleagues in ED are under, and it is important to not lay blame for the issues in our emergency departments on inappropriate GP referrals.

"During September 2019, Department of Health statistics show that 71,280 patients attended EDs in Northern Ireland and during that period only 16.2% of attendances were referred by a GP.

"GPs deal with approximately 90% of contacts within the NHS daily and deal with an overwhelming majority of those contacts without referral to any other agency."

Dr Doran said ED capacity is always a consideration and GPs and patients are aware of the anticipated waiting time for assessment in ED.

She added: "Like ED, GP services are under significant pressure.

"We know that as of 2019 the number of GP practices are decreasing year on year, but at the same time the average number of registered patients per practice has increased by 11%."

She added: "Additional unprecedented pressures of extensive outpatient waiting lists in Northern Ireland means that at times, in the interests of patient safety, GPs will have no other option than to refer to an ED for timely and appropriate assessment. In the absence of other options, these cannot be seen as inappropriate referrals."

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