Health chief’s appeal over misuse of out-of-hours GP services

Patients suffering minor ailments such as colds are being urged not to contact the GP out-of-hours service
Patients suffering minor ailments such as colds are being urged not to contact the GP out-of-hours service

Patients with non-urgent ailments have been urged not to contact Northern Ireland’s out-of-hours GP service over the busy holiday period.

A leading health practitioner has said the high volume of calls from people who could safely wait to visit a surgery is putting sick children and palliative care patients at risk.

Dr Margaret O’Brien, head of general medical services at the Health and Social Care Board, said it was important to remember the service is not to be used for repeat prescriptions or common cold treatments.

“As many of us celebrate and enjoy the holidays with our families and friends, we should remember that this is also a very busy period for our local GPs, nurses and other staff providing an out-of-hours service,” she said.

“GP out-of-hours is offered by five different providers to everyone registered with a GP practice in Northern Ireland, and functions 365 days of the year outside of normal GP working hours. The demand on these services also increases during the holidays when regular surgeries are closed.

“This means out-of-hours GPs all across the region are handling very high volumes of calls, some from people with very serious conditions that require immediate attention.”

Dr O’Brien said the pressure on the service heightened “when people treat the service as an alternative” to their everyday GP services.

“It isn’t for repeat prescriptions, minor ailments such as a cold, treatment for hair lice or if people are just too busy to ring their GPs during the day. Using the GP out-of-hours service inappropriately can prevent people who genuinely need help such as parents with a very sick child, a palliative care patient or an older person who feels very unwell from getting through.

“Almost 600,000 calls are made to GP out-of-hours each year and numbers are increasing year on year, which is why it’s important to only use the service for urgent and serious conditions.”

Patients should ask themselves if their situation is urgent before calling the service, Dr O’Brien said. She added: “Can you wait until your surgery opens in the morning? Should you be getting treatment elsewhere? These questions will help to reduce the large amount of calls from people that could be treated elsewhere and free up phone lines for urgent calls.”

Information on health service options available, including community pharmacists and minor injury units, is available at