The pressures facing our hospitals as they struggle to tackle long waiting lists for certain procedures have long been in the spotlight.
It is only in recent months that the overwhelming demands facing the region’s GPs have come to the fore. The extent of those problems is laid bare today in an NHS Lothian report which identifies the need for 33 new GP surgeries to cope with the Capital’s rising and ageing population and to extend or modernise 38 existing ones.
Up to £84 million is needed to tackle these problems and there are concerns about how quickly that money can be found.
Family doctors can make a strong case for being a “Cinderella service” whose needs are constanly outshone by their “big sister” hospitals. The primary care sector – those healthcare professionals, like GPs, who are our first point of contact with the NHS – receive just seven per cent of the local health service budget.
Simply taking money from our under-pressure hospitals to fund better GP services would be fraught with problems.
But investing properly in these “gateway services” makes sense for many reasons.
The Scottish Government spends tens of millions on health messages designed to encourage more of us to visit our family doctor for checks of various kinds.
That makes sense. Catching serious conditions like cancer early hugely boosts our chances of survival. It helps keep us fitter for longer, vastly improving our quality of life. But, crucially from a funding point of view, it is also very cost-effective. Put bluntly, it is much cheaper for the NHS when our GPs sort out our health problems, rather than leaving them to get worse so that we need expensive hospital care.
The trouble is at the moment that so many people are finding it difficult to get access to our GPs. How many men in particular are being prompted to pick up the phone by a Scottish Government campaign only to find they cannot get a convenient appointment and then give up?
Yes, we need better education to prevent so many people missing appointments, or bothering their GP when someone else can help. But GP services need to be properly funded – and as a matter of urgency.