General practitioners say they are coping with unprecedented demand during the vaccination roll-out, with some having to open at weekends or work on days off to keep up with patient needs.
ocal doctors play a key role in facilitating the Covid-19 vaccine programme for older cohorts and vulnerable groups. However, running the immunisation campaign means some practices have had to limit the days they can see patients, depending on delivery dates for doses.
In some rare circumstances, patients have been referred to out-of-hours services when their GP has been unavailable while working on the immunisation campaign.
Traditionally doctors see a reduction in demand at this time of year, but that has not been the case this year.
Dr Rukshan Goonewardena, who runs the Ballyjamesduff Family Practice in Co Cavan and Kells Medical, Co Meath, said patients with an urgent need are still being prioritised, but others may face longer waits for a consultation while the Covid-19 vaccination programme continues.
“For example, 20pc of our appointment times are going to vaccinating now. We get our [Covid-19 vaccine] deliveries on Thursday. So, Thursday, Friday and part of Monday would go to vaccinating. On our side, we have had to increase GP hours so that we have two GPs on the vaccinating days — one to do the vaccinating and the other one to see the patients and take the phone calls,” Dr Goonewardena said.
“Normally we only have one GP on a Friday, now we have two GPs. One of our regular GPs is coming in on her day off to speak with patients on the phone or to deal with their issues in person.
“In some cases at other practices, if they can’t find a GP because they are taken up doing the vaccines it can mean patients face a longer waiting time to be seen.”
He is concerned the added workloads during the vaccination programme and throughout the pandemic will have long-term implications for GPs.
“It is certainly stressful and there are cases where you hear of GPs who are coming close to burnout. It is more important than ever that when there is a long weekend, GPs make the most of it or if there is a sunny evening they try and avail of it and take up the supports available through the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP).”
As well as offering supports to doctors, the ICGP has appealed publicly for people to remain patient if they encounter difficulties making appointments. Last month its clinical lead Dr Nuala O’Connor said uncertainty about vaccine supplies and changes to the roll-out meant doctors were coping with unique logistical challenges while trying to juggle patient needs.
Dr Conor O’Kelly, a GP at Rialto Medical in Dublin, said front-of-house staff also face challenges trying to triage patients or communicate delays. His practice is now opening every second Saturday to manage the extra workload.
“At the moment there is unprecedented volume of demand, and whether that is a pent-up demand during surge times or an accumulation over the past year, we are certainly seeing people starting to emerge back into general practice. We are relatively back to normal in terms of being open again, with a lot more face-to-face consultation,” Dr O’Kelly said.
“There is a certain amount of seasonality with our demand and we should be emerging out of that winter demand and quietly starting to slow down coming into summer. The demand is still very high at the moment. The vaccination programme is having an impact.
“GPs are playing a blinder there with how quickly they are going through it, but there are logistical factors at play. Even something like when it is delivered plays a role, because you don’t get a choice and the HSE assigns a day to you.
“There is a time-sensitive element to the vaccine. If your delivery is on a Monday, you can stagger the vaccines over the week, but our delivery is on a Friday so we have to come in every second Saturday.
“There is a balancing act to try and cater for routine general practice and to keep those things going, important work like cervical smears or any acute needs. It is definitely a challenge at the moment.”
He hopes practices will be back to normal by mid-summer when younger people are being vaccinated at large centralised hubs.
Dr Naomi Johnson and Dr Edel Doorley at the Rowan Family Practice, Churchtown, Dublin, have also been working on Saturdays vaccinating their patients at the Helix immunisation hub. While both are happy to play their part, they said the extra hours create challenges for families.
“It is hard on my husband because we have two young kids,” Dr Johnson said.
“Marrying everything together is difficult,” Dr Doorley said.
“It leaves little time for you as you are always late at work doing the admin and making sure the right people get the right vaccine, but we are happy to do it.”