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A letter a day keeps the doctor away (from their patients)

Letters from the HSE are a particular source of frustration. Hearing the news about a change to health service policy, before the all-important official missive arrives with the actual details of how and when these changes will commence, is a regular occurrence. A recent example of this is the HSE’s decision to restrict reimbursement of lidocaine patches, as reported in last week’s edition of the Medical Independent, which saw GPs take to social media to ask what was happening as the rumour mills were in overdrive, yet no official documentation had landed in surgeries. Despite all the advances in instant communication, plus ça change.

Another major source of ire for GPs is the HSE’s ongoing ‘hospital waiting list validation’ exercise, in which GPs and patients themselves are being written to by hospitals, asking if the patient still needs an appointment — with a demand to respond, often within seven days, to confirm such, or the patient will be removed from the list.

One GP on Twitter last week said he had received 67 such letters in one day. An appropriate use of his time?

Some of these letters have been signed by an unnamed but snazzily-titled ‘outpatient validation officer’, with no direct phone number or email address naturally, so no way to do a quick check on such queries. Others have arrived after the letter’s expiration dates to confirm the patient still needs an appointment.

Yet more paperwork during a time when people traditionally take their holidays, and how many patients who still need to be seen will simply fall through the cracks? No doubt we will soon be hearing the ‘good news’ about a reduction in our astronomical hospital waiting lists, while GPs deal with the fallout.

There is also major frustration among GPs about being increasingly asked to write ‘stronger’ letters for their patients needing urgent hospital referrals or community health services.

Another GP on Twitter, Dr Stephen Murphy, put it thus: “The GP letter —  like a magical ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ — the answer to all life’s little problems, yet completely powerless.”

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