Four our of five public hospital do not offer GPs direct access to echocardiograms, Galway based heart and stroke charity Croí has found.
Echocardiograms are an essential diagnostic test for heart patients, and those in the public system can wait a long time for their results.
Patients referred for an echocardiogram through a private provider wait, on average, up to one month for their test, Croí found.
Waiting times for those referred for the same test through the publicly-funded health system must wait at least six months and, in many cases, have a wait time of over one year.
Neil Johnson, Croí Chief Executive said that their research shows “glaring inequalities” in the services provided to Irish patients.
“The echocardiogram can now be performed on increasingly portable equipment which is not overly expensive.”
“This non-invasive and, from a patient view point, relatively straight forward test can detect a range of heart conditions but a delayed diagnosis can result in deterioration which limits treatment options or can even prove fatal.”
He added that there is a lack of awareness of this issue, and called on the HSE and Minister for Health to take action.
“Greater access to echocardiography tests and improved workforce planning must be part of a renewed, cohesive national cardiovascular strategy.”
Part of the problem, Croí found, is a lack of trained personnel and streamlined referral pathways.
The problem could yet get even worse, the study warned, with few cardiac physiologist graduates entering the workforce, and up to 20% already working in some hospitals set to retire in the next five years.
Echocardiography describes a test which uses sound waves (ultrasound) to take a moving picture of the heart.
It is routinely used in the diagnosis and management of a range of heart conditions, in particular heart valve disease, but also conditions such as heart failure and in non-cardiac disciplines, such as oncology.
The most common way a patient receives an echocardiogram is through GP referral, going to a private healthcare provider or public outpatient clinic depending on if they have insurance.
Speaking at the report launch, Galway-based Consultant Cardiologist and Medical Director, Croi Prof Jim Crowley said, “This report demonstrates that the wait-times for echocardiography in the public system are unacceptably long.”
“Ultimately, this can only be reduced by addressing the workforce deficiencies outlined. Plans for GP access to Echocardiography are very welcome, but to be successful, proactive workforce development needs to be undertaken urgently”.