GPs urge mildly sick people to treat illness at home as health system struggles with 'extraordinary' demand

The College of GPs is urging Kiwis who are mildly unwell to treat their illnesses at home to ease the pressure on the health sector. 

It comes after hospitals in Auckland and Wellington were forced to hand out vouchers for free GP visits because the emergency departments couldn't keep up with demand. 

In South Auckland, 27 general practices offered free appointments because Middlemore Hospital's ED was overwhelmed.

Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Dr Bryan Betty told AM on Tuesday the situation in the health sector is "very serious".

"There is very little spare capacity in the system at the moment due to the fact we have flu, we still have significant COVID around, we have other winter viruses floating around and often doctors, and nurses themselves are sick, so the workforce goes down," Betty told AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green. 

"What is critically important is that we keep capacity open for those who do need to be seen urgently or do need that appointment. So it's a very difficult situation at the moment."

Dr Betty urged people with mild symptoms to treat their illnesses at home instead of tying up already busy GPs. 

"For a lot of people with mild respiratory symptoms  - runny nose, cold, maybe feeling slightly more congested than a cough - the absolute treatment is to stay at home, plenty of fluids, analgesics such as paracetamol or Ibuprofen and actually giving it time," he told AM. 

"You don't necessarily need to contact a doctor or a nurse in those situations."

Dr Betty said it's understandable that people are anxious given we have been in a global pandemic for the last two years. 

"There has been a high degree of anxiety around COVID and the potential for serious illness from COVID, so patients are anxious about that and it's totally understandable," he said. 

"I suppose it's taking a step back and saying, 'Look if it's mild, we know antibiotics don't help, it is often those simple measures to get through that flu or a cold much as we used to before COVID-19."   

He is also calling on employers to reconsider asking unwell staff to provide a medical certificate until there is less demand on the system. 

Betty said schools and businesses should only require a medical certificate after seven days, rather than the usual three. 

"I suppose what we are saying at the moment is with the extraordinary situation we've got at the moment, with essentially health services at capacity," he said.

"We need to ensure we are freeing up space for these patients who really do need to be seen and sometimes a clearance for a medical certificate is not really a priority at that particular point, so maybe some lessening of the requirements would be beneficial at the moment."   

Watch the full interview with Dr Bryan Betty above.