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Supporting GPs During The Omicron Outbreak

GPs have been supporting around 15% more patients each day during the Omicron outbreak with new systems in place to help ensure patients are prioritised in line with their clinical need. They have coped well with the pandemic, however the pressure is expected to continue as winter arrives bringing influenza and other seasonal illnesses.

“It is a challenging time but the health system continues to work well because health services are being delivered by teams of clinical professionals, and it’s important to acknowledge that whilst the focus is often on hospitals, our primary care colleagues play a vital role,” says Waikato DHB Chief Executive, Dr Kevin Snee.

“Primary Health Organisations have been developing the infrastructure for team-based clinical GP practice for a long time,” says Pinnacle Midlands Health Network Medical Director, Dr Jo Scott-Jones.This allows practices to refer patients to the most appropriate practitioner, improving capacity across the system.

“Most of us now have health coaches, health improvement practitioners, clinical pharmacists alongside nurses who can prescribe, Nurse Practitioners and GPs in one team, allowing the traditional relationship with a GP to transfer to the team as a whole,” Dr Scott-Jones says.

Since the latest COVID-19 outbreak began last year, there have been 66,535 recorded cases in the Waikato community and where people need healthcare support or advice during their recovery, this has largely been provided by primary care teams. All GP practices are using phone triaging to prioritise by clinical need, ensuring those who need immediate care have access.

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“While headlines often talk of the number of COVID-19 positive patients in hospital, the care of thousands of people is being managed by general practices,” says Justin Butcher, Acting Chief Executive, Pinnacle Midlands Health Network. “On top of the usual core responsibilities we are now looking after the health and welfare needs of our COVID-19 patients seven days a week.”

At Te Korowai Hauora O Hauraki where there are five practices and 10,000 patients, many living in rural areas, phone conversations to triage their needs is working well.

“The more phone conversations we have, the less we need to book face-to-face appointments,” says Dr Martin Mikaere, Medical Director. “Mostly people are showing great understanding of the new systems we’re using, but there’s still some learning to go, and those phone conversations do come with a lot of paperwork.”

Dr Wendy Carroll, Waikato Clinical Facilitator, National Hauroa Coalition, agrees. “Triaging their calls is essential.”

“The pressure points across our region’s GP practices vary from week to week, with the overall strain amplified by the two years we’ve now had of the pandemic. We are providing as much normal care as we can while supporting patients with COVID-19 in their communities.”

As primary care providers continue to respond to the pandemic, there are ways patients can help to ensure the system runs efficiently such as leaving phone messages for call backs, or using their patient portal to access medical records, view test results or order repeat prescriptions. They can accept that they may be asked to come in via a different door or required to answer screening questions at the door prior to entry, and to wait in their car instead of a waiting room, steps which are taken to protect them, their whānau and the practice teams.

They can also be aware that routine or non-urgent appointments may be postponed when there are others requiring more urgent care, with pharmacies there for advice on minor medical issues or health concerns. Essential back up healthcare, including assisting with COVID-19 care, is also being provided through weekends, after hours and during surge periods by Tui Medical, Emergency Consult and Anglesea Clinic Urgent Care.

“Although there are indications that we are passing the peak for new COVID-19 cases in our community, there is still a long way to go and we are anticipating a difficult winter ahead. This will place more stress on health services with some disruption to routine services for several months more,” says Dr Snee.

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