Practices need to take steps to ensure people with special needs are not deterred from seeking help by phone triage, a health watchdog says today.
Healthwatch England calls for a “national review” of GP access, warning of many people feeling “frustrated and confused” by changes to the way practices work. It says that some groups are being “left behind” including older people, disabled people, the homeless and those on low incomes.
Healthwatch says that practices need to provide more information to patients about how the new services work. They also need to identify vulnerable patients and those with additional needs, such as language support and disability needs. There should also be systematic call handling training for staff who use the telephone to talk to patients.
Healthwatch chair Sir Robert Francis said: “GPs are a vital first port of call for people who need care; they are the main ‘gatekeeper’ to other services. If people cannot get through to a GP, not only can their health and wellbeing be put at risk, but demand on already overstretched hospitals gets worse. People will go to A&E if there is nowhere else to go, and their condition may deteriorate, leading to increased treatment and care because they couldn’t get help sooner.
“The shift to remote care during the pandemic has understandably happened extremely quickly, but there is little evidence that people have been consulted about how they view these changes. As we move out of the pandemic, thanks to the success of the vaccination programme, the NHS has a great chance to address how everyone chooses to access GP services, as well continuing the improvements brought about by new ways of offering the service. We urge NHS England to undertake a formal review of GP access arrangements to make sure it is working for everyone. It is important that people understand the changes brought in during the pandemic are here to stay and how that affects the way they can get the care and support they need.”
The British Medical Association said practices had to adapt fast to the pandemic.
Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of its GP committee, said: “Just as patients might have felt frustrated during this time though, so too have practice teams, who have had to adjust to ever-changing goalposts about how best to provide care. At the start of the pandemic, GPs were advised to offer as many services as possible remotely, and to use the telephone or electronic systems as the main way to contact the practice. Throughout the pandemic practices have been open and busy, and seeing patients face-to-face whenever it was clinically necessary to do so. Criticism of this last year was unfair, led to demoralisation of hard-working practices teams, and did not reflect the reality of what practices were doing. In fact, considering teams have had to work with outdated IT systems, too few staff, and decades of underfunding, it’s testament to our staff how much they’ve done during this crisis.”