This article on GPs covers the complex role of the General Practitioner, or family doctors, in New Zealand. There is great advice on how to access GP services, what to expect for you and your family, and tips to keep everybody healthy.
What is a General Practitioner (GP) or family doctor?
General practitioners, or family doctors, form part of the core health system in New Zealand. Their work is dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of health problems arising with family members.
The role of a family doctor includes:
- Monitoring health to prevent illnesses arising
- Diagnosis and treatment of health problems
- Organising blood testing, X-rays and other diagnostic tests
- Prescribing medicines and treatment regimes
- Undertaking minor surgery
- Referrals to other health providers – for example, physiotherapists
- If needed, referrals to specialists such as surgeons, paediatricians, gynaecologists
- Referring you for hospital treatment
- Helping to arrange assistance or payments from ACC or welfare organisations such as Work and Income (WINZ)
The general practitioner has a broad understanding of many health issues and is a generalist in many areas of medicine. If the family doctor feels the problem you have is more complex, they will refer you to a medical specialist for more in-depth treatment.
Often a doctor will act as wise counsel and offer a sympathetic and understanding ear. The traditional family doctor has an important role in the community, in understanding both their patient and the family background, allowing a good insight into how and why health problems might be arising.
A growing number of doctors are also encompassing what were previously considered alternative treatments such as nutritional therapy, acupuncture and vitamin supplementation. These doctors often describe themselves as practicing integrative medicine, in that they are integrating traditional and more alternative ways of medical thinking.
New Zealand GPs have qualified and worked as medical doctors and then undertaken a General Practice education training program. The skill of general practitioners is reviewed annually to ensure they are meeting high standards of patient care. The New Zealand government has a strong focus on the role general practitioners can play in primary / preventative health care in this country.
When should I see a general practitioner?
The idea of the GP or family doctor is that they have an ongoing relationship with you and your family. It is important to find a family doctor who you like and whose ability you trust to offer you and your family quality treatment.
If you are feeling unwell and need help, the first port of call is your family doctor – except in an emergency situation when you might need to call an ambulance (dial 111) or visit the Accident & Emergency department of your local hospital.
It is generally recommended you see your doctor once or twice a year for a general health check-up to monitor conditions such as blood pressure and cholesterol; and, depending on your age and sex, checking the health of prostate, breasts, cervix and eyesight.
The general practitioner will also oversee the care of your child and the implementation of the childhood vaccination schedule.
How do I find a GP?
The best way to find a good doctor is by word-of-mouth. Ask about the reputation of local doctors with your neighbours, family, friends or people you trust in the community. You want to find a doctor who has a sound reputation as a caring and competent practitioner.
To find which doctors work in your area you can look in the front section of the white pages of your phone book under medical practitioners, or see websites below.
It is imperative you feel your doctor is offering you a high degree of care. Do not be afraid to ask questions and ensure that you clearly understand everything you are being told.
(If you are unhappy with your doctor at any stage you can easily transfer your patient records to another doctor. If necessary, you can also lay a complaint with the Medical Council of New Zealand or the Health and Disability Commissioner.)
What will the GP or family doctor do?
When you visit your general practitioner, the doctor will:
- Firstly take a history, asking you questions about how you are feeling, when the problem or condition started and the GP will gather as much relevant information as possible.
- Secondly do a medical examination, decide on a course of treatment and discuss this with you. Depending on what is wrong, treatments might encompass a wide range of options including prescribing drugs, organising blood tests and x-rays, referring you to a hospital or a medical specialist.
The cost of seeing a doctor is usually around the $35 – $50 range for an adult. Government subsidies have been introduced for children, young people, the elderly and those on low incomes, so these costs can be substantially lower or be removed altogether. The government has also just introduced new subsidies for those aged 45 – 64. Do not be afraid to ring around to do a price comparison of what doctors in your area are charging.
If you are seeing alternative practitioners such as herbalists or naturopaths, let your general practitioner know about any remedies, vitamins or herbs you might be taking.
What can I do to improve my health?
Increasingly science is proving there is much you can do to keep yourself well.
- Eat a wholesome, nutritious diet
- Include a good vitamin and mineral supplement to your daily regime
- Avoid excesses of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and processed food
- Avoid smoking and drug use
- Avoid being burned by the sun
- Keep a good self-check on any changes in your skin, bowel movements or any ongoing coughs that do not clear up, or sores that do not heal.
- Remember you can also visit your GP for a health assessment on a regular basis, to prevent problems occurring
- Take advantage of screening programmes, such as cervical smears, which detect diseases early.
Useful websites & articles on health issues and family doctors
To get some great tips on keeping your kids sun safe visit our article Sun Safety at School
For information on Immunisation for your children Kiwi families has articles on what to expect and the advantages and disadvantages of immunisation programmes.
You can contact the Medical Council of New Zealand if you have any concerns about care you have received by a doctor.
If you are keen to find a doctor who is also grounded in the new holistic thinking, the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association website is a good place to start – here you will find a list of doctors who practice integrative medicine in New Zealand.