Accessing health services is one of the cornerstones of the NHS Constitution and speaking for GP practices in Tower Hamlets, we want to reassure residents that Tower Hamlets GP practices are doing their best to help their patients.
Recent research shared by Healthwatch Tower Hamlets on GP Patient experience of local residents made for a sobering read. A key issue for some residents is the difficulty of accessing their GP practice.
While patient access has been a challenge for many years, the situation became sensitive when the government and NHS England urged practices to rapidly migrate to remote triage of patients at the beginning of the pandemic to minimise viral transmission. It’s important to remember the virus still poses a threat and so we must all still be cautious.
The challenges of accessing GP care is already being addressed in the NHS work plan, summarised in the document: “Our plan for improving access for patients and supporting general practice”. The plan acknowledges the widespread adoption of remote consultations and a triage-first process to ensure care could continue during the pandemic. Indeed, even before the pandemic, thousands of patients were being assessed effectively and safely in general practice every day via remote consultations, whether over the telephone or online. But the fact remains that this mode of access does not suit everyone, and many people prefer a face-to-face consultation in person.
Dr. Jackie Applebee, Chair of Tower Hamlets Local Medical Committee has commented on this. She said: “I have been to a number of community engagement events including Covid Champions, the older persons forum, the care managers forum and a councillor briefing. My main take-home message is that patients appreciate that general practice is under the kosh and appreciate what we try to do for them but there is a lot of frustration around getting through on the phone.”
“Those that can manage the online access seem to be happy enough, but as we know not everyone is comfortable using those platforms and the people who struggle with this are the people who need us most.”
Dr. Joe Hall, GP at St Paul’s Way Medical Centre agrees but is keen to also emphasise the importance of embracing and integrating new technologies to assist patient access, something that practices are working flat out to do.
He said: “I think that many outside the primary care system do not fully understand the massive strain we [GPs] are under to manage demand which is why we are having to make significant changes to how we are operating. We need to mitigate the risks to those unable to use the new systems but also recognise that the only way to manage the demand is all of us to adopt new ways of working and supporting patients through this phase, otherwise, GP practices will fold under the pressure and all patients – particularly those more vulnerable will lose out.”
“I’ve felt so grateful for how so many patients have adapted to the new systems which have been challenging for us all. Every online consult frees up a phone line for a patient who might otherwise struggle to get through. We are now receiving hundreds of online consults a week helping us to prioritise care for everyone. The issue is not just covid but the non-covid backlog and increased demand for GP appointments. We are all working hard to improve our accessibility online, on phones, and face to face and the only way we can manage this safely is through partnerships with patients and ongoing use of forms of “triage” to ensure patients get the right care, at the right place at the right time.”
We continue to work with Healthwatch, national NHS and local partners to find ways to improve access to general practice.