By Dr Jay Verma
GP Parner, Shakespeare Health Centre
As the health service opens up, GPs have spoken out about the pressure they are facing to deal with a huge backlog of cases as well as new and urgent workloads.
Official figures released last month showed practices in England delivered over 28.5 million appointments – a 20% rise compared to the same time last year.
Astonishingly, only 0.41 per cent of those appointments have taken place using video consultation compared to 40% on the phone and 56% in person. This demonstrates just how far we have to go before we even start making a dent in the opportunities which technology can bring us all.
It’s not surprising that patients are taking advantage of the health service opening up again to get health concerns addressed – and it is right that they do so. GPs are here to serve their community of patients regardless of age, gender or income.
But it worries me when I read that thousands of family doctors are considering taking retirement because of the increase in workload because it will have a disastrous effect on those of us remaining. Mainly, though, the impact will be felt by patients and seen in health outcomes.
I worked throughout the pandemic, including vaccinating in care homes and was delighted to be able to play a part in getting this country out of a lockdown which had many additional health consequences I believe we will see further down the line – including in child mental health.
So I understand that some GP teams – and in those teams I think we must include ALL the clinical staff who work in primary care including the administrative and support team with whom we could not function – are feeling ‘absolutely exhausted’.
But the answer is not to quit. We’ve come this far, we mustn’t give up now.
The government provided primary care with £270 million in additional funding to help address the backlog of patients caused by the pandemic and pay for additional members of staff.
The additional funding GP practices are awarded by NHS England on completion of important health targets, such as the carrying out of long term condition reviews, were guaranteed.
According to a leading industry publication, GP Online, GPs have said that increased volumes of patients had ‘forced them to prioritise the most sick’.
One GP in Surrey, Dr Dave Triska, told the publication his surgery had faced an ‘astronomical volume’ of work since Easter and questioned whether it was ‘humanely possible’ for these working levels to continue.
To put this into context, Dr Triska worked with the UK military in Afghanistan. When he says this is the hardest he has ever worked, I believe him.
And it’s not just the GPs facing the pressure: it’s the nurses, the pharmacists, the health care assistants and the teams on reception who probably face the most patient ire.
So what’s the solution? We’ve seen that money has been made available at national level to help primary care, but this needs to be used effectively.
Pretty much every industry across the world, from farming to finance, has benefitted from the increased efficiencies which technology can bring.
The NHS itself doesn’t admittedly have the best reputation when it comes to IT but the direction being set from the Department of Health and Social Care includes an increase in digital first.
For me, that’s not just online triaging and video consultations: that’s simply digitalising an existing way of working and whilst it may make some things easier it is not making the most of available technology.
Healthcare has a mountain of tools available to use – from artificial intelligence to diagnose brain scans to patients booking in their own appointments. It really does cover the whole spectrum.
The problem isn’t the availability of solutions, it’s the willingness of healthcare professionals to use them and, perhaps, to invest in them.
There are some things technology will never replace. Even during the last year patients who needed face to face appointments should have been able to access them. But by using available resources to allow patients to complete symptom checkers, algorithms to prioritise patients according to need and letting patients book in appointments for routine procedures like flu vaccines or cancer screenings, we can make sure that clinicians can prioritise those urgent appointments.
It would also be a great help to their front of house staff – and could really cut the time spent waiting on the telephone to your local GP practice. And who wouldn’t want that?
The tools are available, the funding is available. Let’s properly invest in our health future and ensure that we learn from the experiences across the NHS and from patients during the pandemic.