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General practice in Northern Ireland is the first point of contact for 90 per cent of health and social care-related needs in the country. However, a growing and ageing population with an increase in long-term and complex health needs means that waiting times to see a GP are longer than ever. Northern Ireland has the lowest number of GPs per head of population in the UK — just 6.1 per 10,000. It is therefore not surprising that some practices are reporting up to a two-week waiting time to see a doctor. Step forward a new online pilot scheme from the NIGPC (Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee). After just two months in operation in five test practices, the scheme is reducing appointment waiting times to such a sizeable extent that patients who need to on the day they call the surgery to request one. AskmyGP is a digital triage system that assesses patients when they initially contact their practice to make a GP appointment. Patients have the choice of going online to the practice website, where they enter their problem on to a computerised algorithm. Alternatively, they can ask for a phone consultation and the GP will usually ring the patient within one hour of the request. The askmyGP online algorithm is then read by the GP, who can process the patient on to the appropriate health professional within the practice, such as a practice nurse or pharmacist. If the patient requires a GP’s input, the doctor will assess whether the patient needs a prescription, phone consultation or a face-to-face appointment. Patients who require an appointment are usually seen within four hours. So far, the pilot scheme has established that most patients are opting for the telephone triage, but it is expected that direct online access to askmyGP will increase, especially with the added option of gaining access to the system via an app for mobile and tablet devices. GPs involved in the askmyGP pilot have unanimously praised its success. "I attended a presentation of askmyGP in London and took the idea to the Health and Social Care Board in Northern Ireland as we were keen to trial it here," said NIGPC chair Tom Black, who works in one of the five practices in the country involved in the pilot. "I work in a very busy practice in Derry City with a patient list of more than 7,000, so an average day would have seen at least 35 appointments on my list. Now up to 50 per cent can be dealt with on the phone or through practice triage systems. "Since we debuted this system in May, my time is now freed up to see the patients who actually need to see me and at a time that suits the patient." NIGPC is now keen to roll out askmyGP to practices throughout Northern Ireland. "General practice is currently under immense pressure here, so anything that eases our workload has to be welcomed," said Dr Black.