Refocusing healthcare resources – moving resources into primary care and general practice

  • SumoMe

I’m talking this morning at the National Health Summit in Dublin. I’m in a session on ‘fixing A/E services’ after Liam Doran from the INMO, talking about the ED crisis, and Mark Aiello from the NHS, talking about the role of pharmacists in A/E care.

The basic question I’m covering is this :-

Will Primary Care finally get the investment it needs to keep people out of hospital?

Every party has a piece on health in their manifestos. Many promise a lot of extra cash for the health services. I’m not sure this is either possible, or a good idea, and I doubt if the money is being spent in the right areas. We all know that he Irish health service has problems. Many of these have been widely reported in the media. Stories tend to focus on trolley counts, waiting lists, costs for drugs, excessive numbers of managers, and poor care. There is some coverage of rising levels of overweight and obesity, and our big problems with alcohol and drug use and abuse. There is much less coverage of some of the other causes of rising health care costs, notably new treatments for diseases, and the costs of care for people with chronic diseases, like diabetes, arthritis, chronic bronchitis, depression and heart failure.

The costs of the service itself are also a source of concern. The state spends about €13 billion, and the public spends about another €5.3 billion on health care costs, one way and another, each year. New figures from the CSO, which came out in December, show that we spend a higher proportion of our national income, 10.2% of GDP, and 12.4% of GNP (which is a better measure of the size of the Irish economy), than almost any other EU country. Over the last few years the proportion of care paid for ‘out of pocket’ has risen sharply, raising costs for individuals and families who need care. It would be very hard to argue that we get a correspondingly good health service for this very large investment. It will also be very hard to get additional money for it.

Why have we got the expensive service we have? Our services developed over a long period of time, and grew organically. After World War Two, when many EU countries restructured health services, we did not. The British got the NHS, we got little or nothing until the health act of 1970. This has left a system which is full of perverse incentives. We have, largely, free hospital care for outpatients, but quite expensive primary care.

Most health care, by far, is self-care, or care by family members. Most of the rest, the more visible piece, happens in general practice, where there are about 27 million visits a year. Unfortunately, the GP contract (the medical card) was designed to cover acute illness, and not the long-term care for people with chronic diseases. There is very good evidence that the long term relationship between the GP and their patient brings big benefits to the care of such chronic diseases, and especially to care for people with several such diseases. This group of patients is where most health care spending goes.

The problem in Ireland is resources. Irish general practice is seriously underfunded compared with similar countries. While GP’s have the ability to lead, coordinate and give care for people with long-term illness, They do not have the resources. There are too few GPs and not enough money, for GPs and their staff. GPs have also lost a lot of their state income n the last five years. Will resources be made available?

There’s an election on. I’ve gone over the manifestos of all the parties to find an answer to this question. There are a lot of common features in the manifestos. Most agree on two things :-

  1. The Irish health care system is unfair, and needs to move to universal care, equally accessible to all (except for Fianna Fáil).

  2. The system needs to focus more on primary care than at present.

There is also wide agreement on a number of more specific policies. Most parties intend to reduce or abolish prescription charges. This is good, because these charges discourage the use of essential medicines. Taxes on sugary drinks are popular, as are a range of public health measures, on alcohol, smoking, and promoting physical activity, especially in the young. Drug policy is more divisive, ranging from more Garda work to prevent the sale of drugs (FG) to a health based approach to drug policy (Green Party). However, every single party wants a wide range of public health policies and measures to tackle major health problems.

Free GP care is also popular, and most of the parties support the idea in some form. They are much hazier about what it means, how to do it, and how to pay for it.

What is missing? Several parties (FG, Sinn Féin, and People before Profit) want to abolish HSE. I understand why, but the price of abolition will be to halt change in healthcare for at least three years. The NHS -has suffered greatly from this over the years. Organization structure is secondary, what matters is changing what happens when the patient meets the clinician.

The parties, the media and the electorate remain obsessed with hospitals, and hospital beds. Hospitals do matter. In Ireland, I think the balance between care in hospitals, and care in general practice, is wrong. Too much is done in acute hospitals, and far too little in general practice. This is one part of the problem in the hospitals. We need some more investment in hospitals, but a lot more in general practice. GPs will benefit from more access to diagnostics, but there is almost no capacity to take on more work, be that free care for more people, or more care for chronic illness.

If action is not taken, as time goes by the services will be further and further stretched. The number of older people is rising steadily. While more are quite healthy, the need for healthcare will rise steadily over the next decade or so. Failure to meet this need, will cause much unnecessary suffering and death. We’ve tried building a hospital centred service, and it has not worked well. To meet rising demand I think we will need to move to community based services, and the heart of these is general practice.

What can be done? There are some very good models, backed by evidence, to support the further development of general practice. HSE are just beginning to move some chronic disease care ito GPs, starting with diabetes care, but more people will be needed to deal with this. More GPs are needed, both to increase capacity, and to cover for retirement, and more training places. Well trained nurses working with GPs, can provide good quality care. Bringing the clinical staff working for HSE in the community, public health nurses, physiotherapists, and others, much closer to the actual individual practices would be very desirable. The idea is achieve integrated care, led by general practice, but linking in to the hospitals, and the other community services.

This means moving resources from other parts of the service to general practice. Given the very high overall spend on health care here, I do not see that we can reasonably make a case for much more money. Between 1997 and 2008 the health care budget rocketed, but I do not believe that health care improved greatly. None of the political parties have acknowledged these problems in their manifesto, and several propose very large increases in health care budgets. Some increases will be needed, but we need more effective plans to ensure that the increased resources are not wasted.

My slides are here

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