No commitment to free GP service, despite success

By Contributor

Photo / NZME

By Stephen Forbes, Local Democracy Reporter

Counties Manukau Health has started a review of a free GP visits scheme in South Auckland after a two-week trial designed to ease pressure on Middlemore Hospital's emergency department.

But Minister of Health Andrew Little has already said he believes the scheme has helped reduce ED patient numbers.

Counties Manukau Health announced the free weekend doctor visits at participating clinics on 17 June and said it would run until 27 June, in response to a spike in patient numbers at the hospital's emergency department.

Middlemore Hospital clinical director of hospital services Dr Vanessa Thornton said the services were offered as short-term measure to help ease the pressure on the ED and will now be reviewed.

She said it would take time to collate and analyse the data.

"While Middlemore's emergency department presentations remained busy this last weekend, we did experience just over 60 fewer patient presentations compared to the Friday-Sunday period of the previous week."

Thornton refused to answer questions about whether the health board plans to continue with the free weekend doctors' visits.

But doctors say they are concerned that any plans to extend the scheme will only add to their existing workloads.

South Auckland GP Dr Api Talemaitoga chairs the Pasifika GP Network and said he was pleased to hear the scheme was being reviewed.

But he said it was vital that feedback was sought from South Auckland GPs, who have had to deal with increased patient numbers.

He said if Health NZ, which will replace the Counties Manukau DHB from Friday, was looking to continue the scheme it would need to involve more South Auckland primary healthcare providers to help share the workload.

Talemaitoga said doctors on the front line in Counties Manukau were already under pressure and facing burnout.

"We're at the end of our tether and there's no spare capacity to continue to deliver this," he said. "It's the same workforce that's continually being asked to dig deeper."

Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Dr Bryan Betty shared his concerns.

"It might have relieved some capacity issues [for the DHB] and that's fine. But it's a short-term solution to a long-term problem," he said.

Betty said the fact the flu season had not yet peaked meant things could get tougher for South Auckland doctors.

"The Counties Manukau DHB is trying to create extra capacity in a system that's already operating at capacity," he said. "GPs in South Auckland are already doing it tough."

Health Minister Andrew Little said the hospital took the step of introducing the scheme because it was under pressure, with a spike in influenza infections and increasing numbers of sick staff.

But he said he thought the DHB's free doctor visits had made an impact on patient numbers at Middlemore Hospital's emergency department.

"We don't know at this stage the number of people who took advantage of the free visits. But it's not unreasonable to say that measure made a difference."

The free doctor visits were announced the day after a patient - who left Middlemore Hospital's emergency department because she was told she would have had a very long wait - died hours later from a brain haemorrhage.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air