Judith Cochrane opinion piece on the ‘Put Patients First’ campaign

I am grateful for the opportunity to explain my reasons for supporting the Royal College of General Practitioners’ (RCGP) call for increased funding.

As an individual, I have huge respect for GPs and the difference which they make to people’s lives. I rely on my GP to manage my high blood pressure – a problem discovered when the Chest, Heart and Stroke team visited Stormont. As a mother of young girls, reassurance of rapid access to medical support when the inevitable childhood ailments occur is invaluable; whilst I have also observed the pivotal role GPs have played when complex medical conditions or terminal illnesses have affected friends and family.

My constituents tell me that their biggest health concern is difficulty in getting a GP appointment, whilst worries about out of hours services and access to their named GP are also raised frequently. Nonetheless, the percentage of patients expressing satisfaction with their GP is consistently high, and I commend GPs who are dedicated to promoting clinical excellence with compassion.

When constituents drew my attention to the RCGP ‘Put Patients First’ campaign, I recognised that a situation in which 90% of health service contacts take place in a GP setting which receives less than 8% of its funding is unsustainable. Having a business background, I wanted to see for myself what daily life is like for GPs, so I visited Cherryvalley Group Practice, where meetings with doctors, staff and patients and first-hand experience of triage and appointments, gave me a taste of the challenges they face.

I met with Dr John O’Kelly, RCGP Chair for NI, who explained that too few medical graduates pursue General Practice, retention of trained GPs is poor, and resources available to practices to fund support staff are inadequate. He also highlighted staffing problems in Out of Hours centres, where attendances have risen by 19% in recent years, which is particularly important in the context of recent Emergency Department crises.

As a result of my engagement with the ministers for health and for employment and learning, as well as the medical faculty at Queen’s University Belfast, these issues are now under review; however, if Health Service spending on General Practice was increased to 11%, both patients and GPs could see a substantial improvement to individual outcomes, and that is why I support the ‘Put Patients First’ campaign.

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