Despite a perception that GP surgeries have been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Alan Stout said 150,000-160,000 consultations are being held per week, with another 10,000 via the out-of-hours service.
The BMA NI representative made the comments to Stormont’s Health Committee on Thursday.
Dr Stout said it had been a “very tough” year for general practice, but that the pandemic had also shown the “vital role” it plays in the health service.
He told MLAs that GPs have run a dual service across the pandemic, staffing Covid-19 centres and their own practice as well as delivering the flu and Covid vaccine programmes.“All of these equate to almost four jobs in one with an ever-increasing demand and a constrained, stressed and extremely fatigued workforce,” he said.
“There is no question that every single GP is finding it very, very tough at the moment.
“This has actually been further challenged by the perception that GP practices have closed during the pandemic. We have all worked hard to ensure that patients know that this is very far from the reality.”
Dr Stout pointed out that general practice was under a “huge degree of pressure pre-pandemic”, stressing the importance of changing how care is delivered to patients.
He said for many, virtual appointments have suited their lives, and this also allows doctors to see more patients.
Dr Stout described the numbers seen as “astronomical” and “astounding”.
“Consultations at the moment are sitting somewhere between 150,000-160,000 per week. There’s an additional 10,000 consultations per week in GP out of hours,” he said.
“About a third of those are converted to face-to-face consultations.
“As a headline figure, that’s about 80 patients per 1,000 that are contacting their GP practice per week, and that is an absolutely astonishing number, that is 8-9% of the population.”
Dr Stout said those include Covid inquiries as well as other health needs.“And I think every practice is reporting that that is increasing rapidly,” he said.
Dr Laurence Dorman of the Royal College of GPs also gave evidence to the committee.
He said with the increase in calls following reduced numbers at the start of the pandemic, he would expect an increase in cancer diagnoses.
Dr Stout said that was an area that “really concerns GPs”.
“The referral numbers (made by GPs) have gone down and the red-flag referrals have also gone down, and that is concerning… the big unknown are presentations that just haven’t contacted us yet, and we know that that is coming,” he said.