A Wellington father says pharmacies are now the first port of call when his two young children are sick and the family is spending more time in after-hours clinics because getting an appointment with a GP is so difficult.
When he did recently manage to get an appointment for his 15-month-old son who had conjunctivitis and cold and flu symptoms, the GP rang while the family was already in the waiting room wanting to conduct the appointment over the phone, he said.
“I was shocked getting a phone call when you’re in the waiting room for the doctor who’s on the other side of the door trying to cancel the appointment.
“I had a whole new level of appreciation for just how incredibly busy they must be at the moment.”
Hutt Hospital and Te Pae Tiaki Wellington emergency departments are seeing an average of 320 people a day for winter-related and other needs. Wait times range from minutes to see a doctor to several hours.
Meanwhile, 76 pharmacies across the district are signed up to a scheme allowing them to treat minor conditions and ease pressure on GPs and hospital services over the winter months.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners is reporting national surveillance swabs for flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have reached a 40 per cent positivity rate which is considered high and at the peak of the season.
The Wellington father, who did not want to be named to protect his children’s privacy, said he successfully advocated for his son to be physically seen by the doctor and was prescribed with Pamol.
A spokesperson for the practice could not comment on this specific case but said they offered in-person, phone and virtual appointments for patients which is usually determined at the time of the booking.
“Since our learnings from Covid and the importance of infection control we encourage staff to stay home if they are unwell so there may be occasions when an in-person appointment is changed to virtual or phone if the clinician is well enough to work but not come on site to spread their infection or virus to others.”
The father said he spent a lot of time second-guessing himself as to whether his children could wait to see a doctor or needed more urgent medical attention.
“You see alerts about meningitis going around and how easily something that you might just think is a cold could turn out to be meningitis pretty quickly in a 15-month-old kid.
“You put off dealing with the doctor and then their temperature spikes bang on 4.30pm without fail and you think we can’t wait overnight.”
He said there have been several occasions like this when the family has ended up at after-hours this winter.
“The amount of times that we’ve ended up having to go to after-hours or the pharmacy instead of a doctor is heaps more than in previous years. This winter’s definitely been worse for it and just trying to get an appointment with a doctor is very difficult.”
Pharmacies are offering free consultations and treatment for minor ailments as part of the Government’s winter preparedness plan. The service runs until the end of September and is for all Māori and Pacific people, children aged under 14 and community service card holders.
Minor ailments include pain and fever, acute diarrhoea, eye inflammation and infections, and minor skin infections.
In the Wellington district, 27 pharmacies in Hutt Valley are signed up, and 49 Capital Coast pharmacies.
Te Whatu Ora Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley acting strategy, planning and performance director Peter Guthrie said they wanted to help people to remain well, or access care and support, in the community.
“Pharmacies play an important role in our work to keep people well over winter, to ease pressure on GPs and hospital services, and to ensure people can access the advice and treatments they need as early as possible. "
Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Dr Luke Bradford said many practices had urgent appointment slots available and could triage patients if their symptoms were made clear at the time of booking.
He said the likes of RSV and flu cases were not as bad as pre-Covid years because people had learned to stay home if they were sick along with other health measures.
“We’re not seeing the same levels as pre-2020 which is reassuring but it’s certainly higher than the lockdown years.”
Te Whatu Ora Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley hospital and specialist services interim lead Jamie Duncan said hospitals were continuing to experience growing demand for services from patients with increasing complexities and acuity.
He said emergency departments in the district were seeing 320 people a day on average for winter-related and other needs.
“While this is largely consistent with what we would expect to see at this time of year, we expect to see increased hospital pressures over the winter months. We continually monitor the prevalence of winter illness across our district, and are ready and prepared to respond accordingly – including opening new facilities to increase available beds and relieve pressure on our busy wards and EDs.”
Wait times to see a doctor in emergency departments were based on the urgency of patient needs, Duncan said.
“During periods of particularly high demand, our EDs may refer people with non-urgent needs to their GP and – where time allows – will contact the GP to try to ensure the patient is seen. We also have an existing arrangement where we may refer patients to the Wellington Accident and Urgent Medical Centre and cover the cost of the consultation.”
Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.