A piece in today’s Times by Chris Smyth, Health Editor. Millions of patience face a three-week or four-week wait to see their GPs. Still, let’s look on the bright side. More than 50% of GPs in the UK today are women. Hurrah. That’s working out well.
Three million patients a month are waiting more than three weeks for a GP appointment, according to official figures that reveal the scale of the pressure on surgeries.
This includes more than a million people waiting four weeks between booking an appointment and seeing the doctor, according to data released by the NHS for the first time.
The figures will pile further pressure on health chiefs to deal with the chronic shortage of GPs. There are 1,000 fewer family doctors than when ministers pledged to recruit 5,000 more in 2015.
A review by the former national cancer director published last week concluded that Britain’s poor cancer survival rates were partly due to the lack of timely access to GP care.
British cancer patients die sooner than those in other countries, and the study by Sir Mike Richards, published by the Health Foundation, said the “gatekeeper” role of family doctors meant that patients were being diagnosed too late. He suggested that in future some urgent cancer checks may need to bypass GPs.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “These figures confirm that more patients are facing longer waits for a GP appointment, and that too many are not getting an appointment when they want one.
“The impact of this on patients should not be underestimated. It can be incredibly stressful to face a long wait before getting to see a doctor, quite apart from prolonging the length of time someone has to live with the medical issue that is troubling them. All of this is a symptom of an NHS running at boiling point all year round.”
GPs have long complained that surgeries are being overwhelmed by rising numbers of patients.
Problems getting a GP appointment have also been blamed for driving more patients to A&E, with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine saying that people “go where the lights are on”.
Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has acknowledged that if the GP system fails the whole NHS will fail as hospitals are pushed beyond capacity. He said that GPs were struggling to deal with rising numbers of older, sicker patients with a fraction of the resources that are poured into hospitals.
His plan for joined up care to keep patients out of hospital relies on beefed-up GP surgeries offering more treatment and co-ordination locally, but despite extra money, £20,000 “golden hellos” and overseas recruitment drives, numbers continue to fall.
Pensions tax changes that make it less lucrative for doctors to work into their 60s also mean that more of the NHS’s 35,000 GPs are retiring early as they become fed up with rising workloads.
While detailed figures are available on hospital consultations, the NHS has not previously been able to count family doctor appointments.
NHS Digital has produced experimental statistics based on data pulled from 90 per cent of GP computer systems, which showed that 307 million appointments took place in the year to the end of October. It estimates that 10.4 per cent of patients waited more than three weeks for an appointment that month. Over the year as a whole the figure was 9.3 per cent.
However, 40 per cent of appointments were found to have taken place on the same day, as doctors increasingly shifted towards triage systems under which the most urgent cases take priority over routine inquiries.
One in seven appointments now takes place over the phone as doctors shift to deal with more routine consultations remotely to free up face-to-face time for more complex cases.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is a champion of new technology, but there are still twice as many home visits as online consultations. Over the past year 1.3 million appointments took place online or over video call.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Our patients are waiting too long to secure a GP appointment. We know this is frustrating for them and their families, and it’s frustrating for GPs and our teams too. We want to deliver timely care to patients, in the early stages of illness, to avoid conditions getting worse, when they can be both more distressing for patients and more costly for the NHS.”
Richard Vautrey, head of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said: “The largest proportion of these appointments are made and attended on the same day, and the majority of patients are seen within a week of booking — showing that, despite rising demand, general practice is offering a high quality and timely service to patients within their community. Many other patients will be appropriately booking ahead as part of the continuity of care they receive for long-term conditions and complex problems that need regular support.”
NHS Digital insists that the data is experimental and the figures do not say why patients waited for an appointment.
• This report originally said that five million patients a month are waiting more than three weeks. In fact NHS Digital’s experimental figures for October suggest approximately three million patients a month waiting more than three weeks. This includes about 1.4 million who waited more than four weeks. Five million patients waited more than two weeks.
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