GPs worried routine and preventative care getting 'squeezed out' by wave of winter illnesses

GPs are under the pump and worried preventative and routine care are being put on the back burner while they're overwhelmed with patients who have COVID, the flu and other winter bugs.

Health New Zealand says it's closely monitoring whether winter illness is impacting doctors' ability to screen for cancers.

The perfect storm of winter illnesses is making it much more difficult for GPs to deliver routine and preventative care.

"Routine care for things such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer in the community, preventative care for things like cervical screening and immunisation especially for our young tamariki," Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director Dr Bryan Betty told Newshub.

All examples of standard care GPs deliver. But as winter hits, Dr Betty warned they're getting "squeezed out" due to capacity issues.

Dr Betty said the winter demand has exacerbated backlogs caused by COVID-19 like the one for cervical screening.

"I think it's very concerning that we are going to have to put a large amount of effort into catching up on these very, very important aspects of general practice and medical care in the community. That will take time, it will take effort, it will take resource," he said.

According to Health New Zealand, as of December 31, 2021, approximately 34,000 cervical screens are needed nationally to reach pre-COVID-19 coverage levels.

"By the end of March 2022 we were actually down to 55 percent screening against a target of 70 for Maori, Pacifica and some other groups. Now something off the back of that meaning that that rate may be dropping even lower is a real concern," said Cancer Society CEO Lucy Elwood.

Vaccine expert Helen Petousis-Harris said she's concerned children may not be getting their vaccines due to GP capacity.

"We are already coming into this at a point of disadvantage where our rates were already declining. This has made it a lot worse," she said.

She said child vaccine uptake's been eroding since 2016. Now with COVID it's just compounded.

"At the moment we are looking about one in three Maori kids being susceptible to measles and we have lost a good 10 percent points of our overall coverage at critical times," she said.

"We need to keep delivering service, we need to use triaging and Healthline to use acute demand. We need to keep immunisation rates high to lessen the burden, going forward over the next year and year after we need to make sure that this type of problem doesn't arise again," Dr Betty added.

It's a problem that will linger through winter but one that can be eased if people get not only themselves but their kids vaccinated too.