Doctors view election promises with 'fear and trepidation'
Cheaper or free GP visits sound like a great idea, but some doctors in Marlborough fear the pre-election promises could put extra demand on already strained practices.
Marlborough has long suffered from a lack of GPs, with some clinics having to turn away new enrolments while others have struggled to hire new doctors.
And just as the situation was easing, it looks like the major political parties, in their quest for votes, could set the region back.
National has announced $18 GP visits for all community services card holders, with an extra 300,000 people on low incomes to become eligible for the card.
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Labour says it will fund a $10 subsidy for GP visits bringing the average fee from $42 to $32. Community service card holders would pay $8 for adults and $2 for teens.
The Greens say they will offer free GP visits and prescriptions for under 18-year-olds, and review the funding model for general practices. NZ First is offering three free GP visits for pensioners each year.
But doctors in Marlborough are concerned the cheaper visits will blow out waiting lists again.
Francis St Medical GP Dr Guy Gardiner said policies should make sure the sector could manage the influx of patients who could suddenly afford more visits.
"I think most GPs regard the new cross-party announcements with a degree of fear and trepidation, especially in an area like ours," Gardiner said.
Gardiner said when under 13-year-olds got free GP visits in 2015, the age group made 17 per cent more appointments nationally, visiting just over twice a year on average.
He expected a similar increase when new policies on cheaper GP visits came into effect.
Blenheim mother-of-two Danielle Blackmore said she moved to Blenheim a few years ago and spent several months trying to enrol with a GP.
The Blackmores eventually enrolled with George St Medical but usually faced a three-day wait for an appointment, Blackmore said.
Her household was considering swapping National for Labour because they proposed cheaper GP visits as well as training more GPs, she said.
"I totally agree with offering cheaper visits to teens. I used to work at the Community College and we used to see lots of teenagers whose parents could not afford to go to the doctor.
"It would be a massive help to our health system, rather than people ignoring it and getting sicker and costing us more in the future."
Labour had offered to increase funding for GP training to add 120 more students each year.
Last month National promised a school of rural medicine would be up and running in Waikato by 2020, adding 60 extra GPs to the workforce each year.
The Greens wanted to review funding for general practices.
New Zealand First committed to increasing the number of students choosing to be a GP by reviewing student loans and offering loan abatements and scholarships for rural GPs.
Renwick Medical Centre GP and the Top of the South Rural Alliance chairman Dr Buzz Burrell said he was disappointed in the policies he had heard so far.
"Subsidies won't change much in terms of improving access to GPs if we don't invest in getting medical students to seriously consider general practice."
Running a clinic like a business - charging patients to pay wages and overheads - meant keeping patients healthy was not as lucrative as treating unhealthy patients, which showed the health system was flawed, Burrell said.
"Primary care should not be a business, it should be focused solely on keeping people well."
Parties were missing an opportunity to provide a funding model similar to the United Kingdom's National Health Service, Burrell said.
General practices in the UK were largely funded by taxpayers, with all patients getting free visits and some prescriptions free or subsidised.
"The only reason that model is wrong is there are too many patients enrolled at each GP. We could take a leaf out of their book and do it properly here. We would see better health outcomes across the board if we really invested in our GPs.
"National's opening line was that they would fund more operations. Instead we could be keeping people healthy and making sure they don't get to that point."
However, Burrell was pleased to hear Labour health spokesman David Clark promise to review the Ministry of Health, he said.
- The Marlborough Express