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GPs in Northern Ireland ask patients to self-treat over winter

BMA writes open letter to public outlining workload crisis

Jo Carlowe

Friday, 20 October 2017

Northern Ireland’s GPs have taken the unusual step of asking patients to self-treat minor illnesses common over the winter period.

The British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee (NIGPC) has written a letter to the public warning them that due to the “unprecedented pressure in terms of increased workload and a severe shortage of doctors” and “abject failure of local politicians to address these issues has exacerbated an already critical situation”, they are encouraging patients to “deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home.”

The letter comes as the staffing crisis in general practice has left remaining GPs each with average patient lists of over 2,000.

Anyone eligible is also being asked to get the flu vaccine ahead of what is expected to be a severe influenza epidemic over the winter period.

The letter was sent to all newspapers across Northern Ireland and is supported by a poster campaign throughout the country’s GP surgeries urging patients to do what they can to treat minor winter ailments.

“Over the winter months GPs and their staff will do their best to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable patients, however it is only fair to warn you that some practices may have to cut their opening hours, stop routine services, deal with cases over the phone or send patients directly to hospital in order to manage workload,” writes NIGPC Chair, Dr Tom Black.

“To help manage workload we would encourage patients, where possible, to deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home. Your local pharmacy should be your first point of call for these minor issues.

“This crisis in GP services has been caused by a lack of funding, a huge increase in workload and a failure to attract young doctors into general practices. The average GP is now responsible for the care of 2,000 patients. We cannot sustain the current level of work and therefore ask for patients’ cooperation in taking these simple steps to help manage that workload.”

Dr Black added that the country’s GPs had been “left with no choice but to be honest with their patients on what lies ahead”.

“The problems in general practice have not gone away, and without a functioning devolved government they are getting worse,” continued Dr Black.

“No funding, no new GPs coming through and the largest average patient list size we’ve ever had; we therefore owe it to our patients to be honest about what potentially lies ahead this winter and ask for their support. GPs and staff will continue to do their best to maintain vital services for those in most need.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told OnMedica: “The Department is fully aware that winter pressures are a very serious concern across the health service this year and welcome the fact that BMA is highlighting key public health messages on getting the flu jab and encouraging patients in making greater use of pharmacies.

“It is only by transforming the health and social care system and by implementing new models of care that we will be able to alleviate the pressures on our health and social care services, sustain improvements in waiting times and deliver better outcomes for patients. The evidence for transformation is well documented and our system must meet the needs of today’s population and that of the future if we are to see change.”

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