Your GP surgery is usually your first port of call when you start to suffer from any medical symptoms and the recent covid pandemic has highlighted how important it is, in certain circumstances, to be able to see your GP for a face-to-face appointment. As GP surgeries have made the necessary transition to more telephone and video appointments, due to covid restrictions, the limitations of appointments through these methods have become more and more apparent.
A coroner, Alison Mutch, (senior coroner for Greater Manchester) has recently warned that the inability of some patients to see a GP face-to-face was contributing to deaths. We all know that it can be difficult to communicate a problem over the telephone; you are unable to see whether the person has more to say and or to see visual cues. Even assessments by video are limited, as the quality of the video can make it difficult to fully assess the problem and you are unable to use other senses (touch and smell) to get a full picture.
NHS England recently wrote to GP surgeries (in May 2021) to ask them to ensure that they were offering face-to-face appointments and they stated that a remote appointment should only be offered alongside a clear offer of an appointment in person.
However, GP surgeries have now confirmed that they are struggling to cope with the demand for in person appointments. This is due to a fall in the number of GPs across England, a growing and ageing population, more complex consultations and a general overall increase in demand.
As a result, GPs are under enormous pressure. Professor Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, has stated, ‘GPs are finding it increasingly hard to guarantee safe care to their patients…The chances of making a mistake in a diagnosis or a mistake in a referral decision or a mistake in prescribing are all greater when you’re under stress. And if you’re working 11, 12-hour days, seeing 50, 60 patients…the chances of you making a mistake, we all know, are higher.’
The Royal College of GPs wants the government to introduce emergency measures to help, including recruiting more GPs and more support staff. However, these measures will take time and until then it is unclear what can be done to ease the strain on GPs and to ensure patient safety.
However, what is clear is that GP surgeries will need to redevelop their services in the future, perhaps by way of a more thorough triage system to ensure that people who need face-to-face appointments are given them and then remaining patients can be assessed through quicker remote consultations. This will be difficult, as it will need to involve a level of familiarity with patients, their needs and their medical history. GPs will also need to ensure that the person carrying out the triage service has the necessary level of expertise to assess what level of care the patient needs.
Unfortunately, it does not appear as though there is any quick fix and we will have to wait and see what the future holds for GPs and their services.
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