When will GPs come out of hiding and give patients the service they deserve?

Over recent years the way to get help from General Practice has changed significantly. However, these changes have not always been explained to patients. Concerns expressed include patients not being seen face to face or allowed to request a GP.

Many patients have felt confused, abandoned and angry. If the changes were made due to COVID why is General Practice not returning to business as usual?! I will attempt to explain.

In the past, to see a GP all you had to do was ask. Now when you ring, a receptionist may ask you about your problem. You may be offered a phone call from a GP or help from a different professional. Many patients think, “But I just want to see a GP!”

First I need to explain the background to the problem. Patients are living longer, with more medical problems and many more medications. The complexity of General Practice has vastly increased. But the number of GPs has decreased. General Practice was overwhelmed for years before the pandemic added even further strain.

One solution was to introduce new roles, such as Nurse Practitioners, Pharmacists and Physios. These professionals are highly skilled and knowledgable in the areas they specialise. The GP’s particular role is to manage patients will complex or multiple medical problems and to support the team. New services have also developed such as eye units and minor injuries units. So there are now lots of options.

If patients are allowed to choose whom they can see, they will almost always ask to see a GP. There are not enough GP appointments, so they are given to patients based on who rings first. One problem with this is that GPs will spend time with patients who could have been managed by other members of the team. And with the GP fully booked, the most complex patients have no one available to help them.

An alternative to this is called ‘triage’. Triage is matching your problem to the most appropriate person to help. The receptionist asks a bit about your problem and is trained to pass this on to the right person at the surgery. If a problem turns out to be more complicated than expected, we all have access to the expertise of the whole team. Strict confidentiality is followed by all staff. This new way of working may feel uncomfortable. However it means we can make use of whole team, we can offer far more appointments and we can share them out based on what patients need, rather than who rings first.

Why did this change during the pandemic and will it change back? Many surgeries used triage to better manage the needs of patients long before the pandemic. With General Practice so stretched most surgeries will continue to use triage to help more patients and prioritise those who need us most.

Patients are asking ‘when will GPs start seeing people face to face?’

Contrary to common belief, GPs have continued to work face to face throughout the pandemic. Most patients and GPs prefer face to face appointments. At times they are needed medically and they help to build the relationship. Most surgeries increased their use of telephone calls, messaging and email to reduce the spread of COVID. Based on the information that you give to the receptionist, or after the GP calls you back, we still bring patients in to be seen when this is needed.

Will we go back to a full face to face service? Many surgeries used a mixture of appointments before coronavirus because it enables them to offer far more appointments. It is also more convenient for many patients and done with care, it is medically safe and effective.

We don’t have nearly enough GPs to work in the way we would all like. Our way to offer more appointments is to use triage to help you fine the most appropriate person to help you, and to offer different types of GP appointments based on what is needed.

We know that changes in the services you rely on can make you feel vulnerable, neglected or insecure. This is especially true about something as important as your health. General Practice could have explained these changes better.

Whilst appearing less visible, GPs are actually delivering more appointments than ever. Achieving what’s expected of General Practice, with the workforce we have, is now a near impossible task. But we have never stopped caring deeply for our patients. These changes are because we want to help ensure that you still get the care that you need.

GP, passionate about patient communication and empowerment