Northern Ireland news

Access to GP services north and south of border probed in all-island scoping exercise

The joint study will explore similarities and differences between GP services in Northern Ireland and the Republic
Seanín Graham

COMPARISONS between GP services north and south of the border will be investigated by researchers as part of an all-island study on shared co-operation across different sectors.

The 'scoping' exercise, which began last month and will continue until November, notes that health has been identified as a "key area offering potential for greater cooperation" between the Republic and Northern Ireland and is "a focus for the Shared Island initiative".

With free access to primary care in the north under the NHS, the vast majority of the population in the Republic pay around €60 for a GP visit in addition to prescription costs.

The unemployed, over-70s and people entitled to means-tested medical cards are among those eligible for free GP consultations.

While cross-border work has been ongoing in relation to children's cardiac services and transplants, access to primary care remains separate and has ignited debate on the constitutional issue due to healthcare costs and the impact on those from disadvantaged backgrounds in Northern Ireland.

The researchers state that access to GP services across the island is "relatively poor", singling the 'barrier' of payments in the Republic and reference a study which discovered that almost one in five patients with medical problems did not seek a consultation due to cost.

While there are no financial constraints in the north, mounting demands has led to longer delays for GP appointments - while hospital waiting lists are now the worst in the NHS, a situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Taoiseach's Shared Island unit and the Economic Social and Research Institute researchers state: "...differences between the two systems, in particular in relation to eligibility for primary care services, provide an opportunity to explore how these differences might impact on a range of factors including healthcare utilisation, unmet healthcare needs and healthcare expenditure."

Their study has four main aims:

- Explore the two primary care systems along a number of areas including eligibility, structure, workforce, financing and expenditure

- Tally a range of metrics in both jurisdictions including out of-pocket spending on GP visits, visiting rates, unmet healthcare needs and uptake of preventive services

- Examine how differences might impact on other parts of the system - including the hospital sector

- Draw out implications for policy

They add: "It is anticipated that this research will provide insights about how the differences in the primary care systems influence outcomes, and in doing so can inform considerations on the reform of primary care, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and identify areas of crosslearning."

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