GP services in North Northants continue online as practices see patient numbers surge

Patients have reported problems getting appointments

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 5:30 am

Patients at GP surgeries in the north of the county will have to battle online booking and phone systems for the foreseeable future as face-to-face appointments become less common.

The NHS is currently experiencing some of the most severe pressures in its 70-year history and surgeries across the country, with the number of patients per practice being 22 per cent higher than it was in 2015.

According to the doctor's union the BMA, as well as rising demand for services, practices have been struggling to recruit staff, and patients having to wait longer for appointments.

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Lakeside Surgery run by Lakeside Healthcare
Lakeside Surgery run by Lakeside Healthcare

At the start of the Covid pandemic GPs switched appointments to telephone and video consultations, only seeing face-to-face 'clinically appropriate' patients.

Dr Joanne Watt, GP chairman, NHS Northamptonshire CCG said: “Our general practice teams have adapted to provide patients with safer methods of accessing services during the pandemic via telephone and online consultations, while continuing to offer face-to-face appointments when clinically appropriate.

“A large number of our population prefer to access services via telephone or virtual appointments, but we will continue to regularly review services in order to ensure people get timely and appropriate care when they need it.

“We understand this has been a difficult period for everyone and the unprecedented demand on services has led to frustration for some of our local population, and we would like to thank them for the flexibility and patience they have shown.”

GPs have been consulting patients via video and phone and face-to-face

Patients trying to access their GPs by telephone have reported waits of up to an hour at practices across North Northamptonshire, with their frustration compounded when no appointment slots are available.

Corby patients of one town surgery have voiced their dismay with their provider on the Facebook group 'Lakeside Surgery Dissatisfied Patients'.

Group admin Bob Riley said: "It's a nightmare. I had an ulcer - it was going on and on. I tried to make an appointment online but all the slots for three weeks were booked up.

"How are people who don't go online supposed to get an appointment? How many more people are struggling to get seen?

The number of people wanting appointments has risen

"I think they have far too many patients. The whole system is flawed.

"I'm 63 and I have blood pressure problems. Patients in my age bracket should be given a health check. The whole set up is a lack of care.

"There's only one way I'm going and things will start to fall off. It's a worry. I want to know that if a lump appears that I can phone a doctor and find out what I should do.

"The medical professionals are not being kind to themselves.

"They are perceived as angels but they need to be angels to themselves.

"The medical profession is not being treated fairly. We need more GPs and better systems - proper funding and proper treatment of staff.

"I had one member of staff contact me and said about the situation 'it's awful'."

Lakeside Healthcare has surgeries across Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire including Lakeside Surgery and Forest Gate Surgery in Corby, Brigstock Surgery, Headlands Surgery in Kettering and Oundle Medical Practice.

Emma Downs, hub manager for Lakeside Kettering and Corby said: "Since January 2021, we have experienced a 20 per cent increase in patients phoning the Corby surgery and, despite this surge, actually dealt with 28 per cent more patient contacts per week in May compared to January.

"To support and minimise the waiting time on phones, all staff have been trained and are routinely part of the call centre team from first thing in the morning and during times of peak demand.

"Work is already underway to upgrade our phone system over the summer. The new system is cloud-based and will enable us to have a call-back functionality to save patients waiting on the line.

"We have expanded our team by three full-time equivalent GPs who came into post in early May and have trained four of our nursing team to support the clinical team, meaning that more GPs will have increased capacity to see our more complex patients.

"We have also appointed a mental health nurse who will join us at the beginning of June and are currently recruiting four full time equivalent patient services team members to further reduce the waiting times on the phones and support the administrative team.”

Ms Downs emphasised that face-to-face appointments had been continued through the lockdowns.

She said: "We need to be very clear, GP practices have continued to see patients in person during the pandemic, but as with many other NHS services, the number of face-to-face appointments has understandably had to reduce to protect patients - particularly those at higher risk if exposed to such a potentially lethal virus – and to protect our staff.

"Here at Lakeside, we never stopped doing face-to-face consultations during the pandemic, patients were always seen if it was clinically appropriate.

"We are continuing to promote the use of eConsult for our patients and, on average, log between 800 and 1,000 unique visits a week through this platform, with around 60 per cent of patients being diverted to other services or self-help advice.

"As restrictions ease, Covid-19 is still circulating and new variants remain a concern, so to continue protecting patients, we still have to limit how many can be in the surgery at any one time - something NHS England notes in its guidance.

"This raft of measures demonstrates that we are acting swiftly and agilely to address the issues that we all find frustrating.

"I and my team would like to thank our patients for their continued flexibility and understanding while these measures are embedded.

"Please be assured that we have, and will continue to offer, face-to-face appointments for those that clinically need one.”

Frustrations have been felt across the area with one Desborough woman asking questions of her local surgery after her husband's regular appointments were switched online.

When 79-year-old Alex Goodman felt dizzy at his care home, he was prescribed antibiotics for a urinary tract infection but the recurrence of a previous heart problem was missed.

He fell and shattered his shoulder and wife Linda found out from other medical staff he might not have fallen if his irregular heart had been picked up by a face-to-face examination.

She said: "He was feeling wobbly and the GP assumed it was a UTI. He wasn't seen face-to-face. Before Covid they had regular visits by a GP.

"He had an irregular heart beat before. He could have had a fall but it might have been avoided if he had been examined.

"It's a bad break and the hospital clinic said they would usually pin it but he might not survive the anaesthetic. The fracture clinic recommended morphine patches for the pain."

She has made an official complaint - having to write a letter and post it through the practice's letter box - as they were unable to accept emails.

A spokesman for NHS Northamptonshire CCG said: “We understand this is an extremely worrying time for the gentleman and his family, and we would like to extend our sincerest sympathies to them and wish him a full and speedy recovery.

“Local GP practices have remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic but have been offering telephone or video consultations with patients where clinically appropriate and in line with national guidance.

“As the commissioner of GP services, our priority is ensuring patients in our county can access safe and high quality services.

"We will support the GP practice to ensure this incident is thoroughly investigated and any learnings from it are shared across our wider GP community.”

The CCG also said that they are continuing to work with GP practices to ensure appropriate staffing and patients have been referred to other practice team members including the practice nurse or physiotherapists.

The NHS has prioritised cancer care during the coronavirus pandemic and the latest figures show that hospitals carried out more than two cancer treatments for every patient they treated for Covid-19.

According to the BMA, since 2017 the number of GPs working full time hours or more has been steadily decreasing.

The number of GPs choosing to work some degree of part-time has been climbing.

A survey of BMA members in April 2021 said that almost half of respondents said they were currently suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress or another mental health condition and of those, 40 per cent were suffering 'worse than before the start of the pandemic'.