This question of Co-payment or charging at the point of care crops up time and time again , the question is asked but the mechanisms and health impact is rarely if ever debated openly in the UK . This opinion piece is from ON-Medica.
Ingrid Torjesen Thursday, 07 January 2016
Charging patients for GP consultations could raise much needed funds for the health system, a doctor argues in a debate* published in The BMJ this week.
David Jones, a foundation year 2 doctor at Worthing Hospital, says that fundamental changes are needed to the NHS because of increasing costs and demands.
Charging works in other countries, he argues. In Australia, patients have to pay a co-payment for a GP consultation – typically about £10 – while the remainder is paid by the government. “No one sees this as unethical – it is the norm,” he writes.
People in the UK who can afford to already pay towards drug prescriptions and dentistry, “showing that the public accepts that an entirely free healthcare model is not sustainable today,” he points out.
Vulnerable groups, including children and elderly people, would be exempt from charges, similar to the existing prescription charges exclusion criteria, he explains.
But he adds that charges may offer other benefits, such as a reduction in missed GP appointments, patients taking more personal responsibility, leading to fewer visits with conditions that they could manage themselves, greater service availability, and shorter waiting times.
The argument that charges would deter the sick from seeking help doesn’t stand up, he says, as in Australia annual GP attendances per person are comparable to those in the UK. “Co-payments would not be a vote winning strategy for politicians, but to maintain the highest possible standards for all patients, amid ever increasing healthcare costs, we need radical measures to ensure the continued success of the NHS,” he concludes.
But Nancy Loader, a GP partner in Suffolk, worries about increased overall cost and harms to patients.
Extensive evidence shows that strong primary care led health systems, free at the point of access, are associated with improved health outcomes, increased quality of care, decreased health inequalities, and lower overall healthcare costs, she writes.
And she explains that in countries that have introduced co-payments, governments “end up reimbursing, capping, and waiving the co-payment to reduce health disparities.”
For example, New Zealand and the Irish Republic, where patients have always made a co-payment to GPs, “it has interfered with initial access to care and deterred preventive care measures, resulting in greater health spending in secondary care,” she writes.
Charges can also deter patients from seeing the GP as advised after medical or surgical discharge from hospital, she adds. They can encourage patients to collect multiple problems to discuss in a single consultation and pressure doctors to deal with them all at once. And they can encourage unnecessary prescribing or referral.
And she points out that patients who cannot afford to see a GP simply attend free emergency departments instead.
“Keep the NHS free for all at the point of access, not for sentimental or historical reasons, but because it makes good economic sense, is better for healthcare outcomes, reduces bureaucracy, and allows for innovative ways to match supply and demand in general practice,” she concludes.
*Jones, D et al. Should patients pay to see the GP. BMJ:2016;352:h6800. doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6800