A project that sees hospital consultants carry out virtual consultations with cardiac patients is to be rolled out across Ireland in an effort to shorten long waiting lists and ease pressure on emergency departments.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly made the announcement as a report was published announcing the achievements of 123 projects funded through the Slaintecare Integration Fund, launched in 2019.
The aim was for dozens of healthcare projects to assess new models of healthcare across community, hospital and voluntary settings, and for the Government to commit to fund projects that have proven effective.
Speaking from St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin on Wednesday, Mr Donnelly said: “The aim of this is to provide efficient service for heart failure patients presenting to their GPs.
“Essentially what you have: a patient comes in to their GP with a more complex issue that the GP would normally be able to deal with.
“The GP does a video call with one of the teams here, with one of the consultants here, and says, ‘This is my patient, what do you think, should I try the following things?’
“Essentially, the GP, and therefore the patient, are getting a consultant level of care, but they’re getting it in their community, in their GP practice, without having to wait, sometimes for far too long, because of the waiting lists.
“We’re getting great feedback from patients. We’re getting great feedback from GPs, the GPs themselves are loving it, and they’re becoming more and more skilled in the management of all of these chronic diseases as well.
“The first phase of this project, astoundingly, saw a 100% reduction in the number of calls to emergency departments and to acute medical assessments units.
“So imagine the number of people that would have ended up in here worried that something was going on with their heart, and the team here was able to work with their GP and say you don’t need to come in. A 100% reduction in the emergency referrals.
“A 54% reduction in referrals to specialists (in) cardiology outpatients… so the impact on patients is absolutely fantastic.
“So we’re now scaling this up, right across the country.
“So there’ll be cardiology teams, here in our hospitals, working with the GPs, working with primary care teams, to essentially make sure the patients have the care they need in their GP clinic or ideally at home.”
Professor Ken McDonald, medical director of the Heart Failure Unit at St Vincent’s, said patient perception of the project was positive.
“You might think the patient loses out by not facing (their consultant)… who is involved in this process, but in fact, their perception is quite the opposite.
“They’re very happy… because the GP is talking to the specialist, getting good advice, without the need and possible travel to institutions such as this.”
He said the policy also has a “green impact” as it saves patients from driving to hospitals.
“Over 100,000 kilometres were saved in terms of unnecessary transfer or transport for patients and their families.”
Prof McDonald appealed to the Department of Health and the HSE to continue along this path of improvement for the healthcare sector.
The Slaintecare project is a 10-year cross-party plan that aims to introduce a universal healthcare system and outsourcing services like diagnostics to local communities.