Abuse of GP services in Northern Ireland must stop
There is no doubt that family doctor services - like other parts of the health service - are being stretched at the moment. One has only to consider how difficult it is to get an appointment with a GP to see the strain. That is why those who do not keep their appointments, thereby wasting doctors' time and denying other patients a visit, are guilty of shameful behaviour.
The Health and Social Care Board has revealed that an astonishing 10,000 patients miss appointments every week in Northern Ireland. Presumably most of them simply just don't turn up at surgeries. One patient was asked to leave a GP practice after failing to turn up for 17 appointments in a 12-month period.
Free care at the point of delivery makes the NHS the envy of many countries throughout the world, but some people, rather than cherish it, take it for granted and abuse this privilege. Patients here make around eight million appointments a year, but health experts query if so many face-to-face meetings with GPs are really required.
It is well established that many of the conditions that people seek appointments to discuss are self-limiting. They will cure themselves given time or the use of over-the-counter medicines. Indeed, this may account for some of the missed appointments - the patients just feel better by the time their appointments come around and ignore them.
Yet more and more people are going to their family doctors. Some doctors say their patient encounters are rising by 7% a year, a level of demand which they argue is unsustainable. Their anger at missed appointments is understandable given this backdrop.
Finding a solution to the problem is more difficult. Some practices have adopted a three strikes and you're out approach - anyone who misses three appointments without giving prior warning or without a valid excuse will be asked to find another GP practice.
But a more controversial approach is also being mooted - fining those who just fail to turn up for an appointment. This has a ring of justice about it, since the volume of missed appointments every week costs the health service money in wasted time and disruption of services. Given the financial strains already imposed on the health service, it can ill-afford to lose any more through selfish behaviour by patients. The threat of fines might just concentrate their minds.