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Accessing GP appointments- a disaster waiting to happen or hope on the horizon?

By Nathan Davies, on 16 May 2019

In this post Ruth Abrams and Sophie Park reflect on the current pressures facing GPs and NHS today.

In a recent expose called ‘GPs: Why Can’t I Get an Appointment?’, a Panorama documentary, which aired on BBC1 on Wednesday 8th May, emphasised the current limits of and pressures on the NHS system. The programme featured interviews with overworked GPs and allied healthcare professionals, painting a rather bleak picture. Practices are merging and closing at an ever increasing rate. Patient loads increase as patient lists are subsumed. Patient multi-morbidities have increased the need for chronic conditions to be monitored with regular GP appointments. Yet on average patients wait a minimum of two weeks for a routine appointment. Early retirement and a limited flow of trainees into General Practice also contribute to the strain, making practice sustainability difficult to envisage. Inevitably, pressure and frustration are being felt amongst both patient groups and the primary care workforce.

Whilst those researching, working in and experiencing primary care within the UK will already be familiar with these factors, what has become a pressing concern since the 2015 publication of the BMA’s, National survey of GPs: The future of General Practice, is patient safety. At present only the most urgent of cases are seen quickly in General Practice. Yet still an unsafe number of patients are seen by any one GP in a day. This high demand placed upon GPs makes for little time to reflect on cases.

Enter- the release of the new GP contract and the NHS long term plan which intend to employ a multi-disciplinary army of healthcare professionals. Within this new way of working, workloads will be shared amongst staff, with greater efforts being made for both integration and collaboration. A typical GP’s day will begin to look very different. Micro-teams will have time to discuss patient cases, a GP’s time can once again be focused on the professional tasks only they can undertake and overall there begins to be a healthier outlook to teamwork.

Some promote this utopian vision of General Practice working unquestioningly. Pots of money, such as those made available through the Prime Minister’s Fund, have encouraged new ways of working with very limited evidence base. Yet one aspect seemingly unaddressed within the new plans is the disparity across patient access and levels of deprivation within the UK. In a recent report by the Health Foundation, GPs working in higher deprived areas see more patients compared to their counterparts. These are areas where recruitment of this new workforce will inevitably be harder. This raises questions about how best to incentivise recruitment so that patient access to care remains equal for all.

There is also a certain feel that these plans are being done to, rather than with GPs. We need only reflect back a few short years to the junior doctor protests to recall that in order for patient safety to happen, workforce perspectives must be accounted for. In order for the NHS to remain as successful as it has been and for the principles of Astana declaration to be realised, GP engagement rather than negation needs to remain central to all future planning activities.

Unequal access to care and a disruption to professional identities present major issues. But doing nothing is no longer an option. At a time when the NHS is so often synonymous with the words crisis and strain rather than success, a Utopian vision for both staff and patients may be both timely and necessary. Reifying this however, becomes a different matter all together.

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