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Helsinki plans scheme to let patients choose clinic based on queues

Waiting times at some city health centres for non-urgent appointments can be more than a month.

Ylilääkäri Liisa Grönhagenin vastaanotolla on Elina Hallamaa.
Chief physician at Helsinki's Lauttasaari health centre Liisa Grönhagen meets with client Elina Hallamaa. Image: Kristiina Lehto / Yle

Health centres across Helsinki are planning to provide clients with a new booking system in which appointments can be made at facilities of their choosing. If they choose, clients will also be able to book appointments at centres with the shortest waiting queues, according to city health officials.

The planned booking system will also become more centralised than it is today. Patients will have real-time access to the length of queues at various health centres and be guided to ones where the wait is shortest.

At some city health centres the waiting times for non-emergency appointments can last longer than a month, while others are much shorter.

Typically, residents go to health centres closest to where they live. But for the past six years, they've been able to decide for themselves where to seek care - but only about ten percent of them actually stray from their neighbourhood clinic.

Personnel shortages

The city's health centre system's medical director, Timo Lukkarinen, said he thinks more people will take advantage of the choice in the future. But he said there is a risk that residents in newly-established neighbourhoods and districts in particular may face increasingly longer queues for doctor visits.

However, Lukkarinen said the city plans to track how people use the queue-based appointment-making service at each health facility and will adjust personnel levels accordingly.

Even so, there will still likely be medical staff shortages. The entire country's public health care system is reportedly in dire need of more medical staff, but is having a hard time recruiting them.

Lukkarinen said the planned scheduling system will not solve the queue problems on its own, however.

"It won't solve it entirely, because people will want to go to centres closest to them. Helsinki is growing quickly and we need to prepare ourselves for it by having adequate resources," Lukkarinen said.

Chief physician at the health centre in Helsinki's island district of Lauttasaari, Liisa Grönhagen said her facility welcomes patients from other parts of the city. But she noted that she is concerned about doctors' and nurses' abilities to cope with increasing workloads.

"We found in a personnel survey that staff is already at the breaking point in terms of their well-being and stamina on the job. Staff members are often tired out," Grönhagen revealed.

One-in-ten

Lukkarinen also pointed out that the planned system isn't meant to put the burden on residents to even out health centre queues by going across the city to various facilities. He said it was rather more a question of freedom of choice, saying that those who want to go to different health centres can do so.

He pointed out that the one-in-ten people who currently choose different health centres is a fairly small amount, given that the centres are relatively near one another and public transport makes them easy to reach.

However, Helsinki residents select to go to health centres farther from home more than their neighbours in the city of Espoo do, where only two percent of patients take advantage of the opportunity.

The city encourages residents to see the benefits of having long-term relationships with physicians, however. Many people who've moved to different parts of the city continue going back to their old health centres, according to the city.

It remains unclear when the planned scheduling system could be implemented.

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