Private Belfast clinic has busiest year because of GP waiting times
A private GP service in Northern Ireland has seen consultations soar by a third over the past 12 months as NHS family doctors struggle with patient numbers.
Patients are travelling from all over Northern Ireland to the clinic in south Belfast rather than face a month-long wait to see their GP, it has been claimed.
It comes just a week after the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) launched a campaign to encourage people to only visit their family doctor when necessary, to ease pressure on the service.
The RCGP campaign, 3 Before GP, calls on patients to consider whether it would be appropriate to practice self-care, use a reputable website such as NI Direct, or visit a pharmacist before booking an appointment to see their family doctor.
Now it has emerged that a growing number of people are turning to a GP service operating at an independent hospital.
GPs working at Kingsbridge Private Hospital saw a record number of patients over the past 12 months, with an additional 1,500 patients coming through the doors in 2017 compared to 2016.
The service aims to relieve pressure on the NHS - where medical colleagues are operating severely stretched and underfunded practices - by giving patients who cannot get prompt appointments easy access to quality healthcare.
Dr Lisa Nelligan, who has worked as a GP for 10 years, said in addition to short appointment waiting times, they can also offer almost immediate access to life-saving diagnostic tools, whereas NHS patients frequently face lengthy waits.
"I had a woman in with me with suspected ovarian cancer and, unfortunately, it turned out that she did have ovarian cancer, but we were able to diagnose her on the same day," explained Dr Nelligan.
"The earlier a person with cancer is diagnosed, the better, so it is fantastic to be able to do that because we would not be able to do that on the NHS.
"Even if you make a red flag referral for a patient you suspect has cancer, it can be weeks before they will get a hospital appointment."
The service, which was launched seven years ago, is open to anyone who needs to see a doctor and Dr Nelligan said difficulties in accessing NHS doctors means more people are now relying upon the service provided at Kingsbridge.
"We see people of all ages, we would get people bringing in their elderly parents because they don't want them waiting weeks to see their own GP," she continued.
"We also see people with mental health problems and while that might seem unusual, nowadays people don't tend to see the same GP at their own practice all the time.
"We can spend at least 20 minutes with our patients in each consultation whereas in the NHS, GPs only really get about five minutes and that isn't really sufficient time to spend properly discussing issues.
"We can also see the patients again as often as we feel necessary, so there is that continuity of care."