Surge in demand at GP surgeries in the Black Country and Staffordshire
Demand at GP surgeries in the Black Country and Staffordshire has jumped according to new figures – with some activity closer to pre-coronavirus levels.
But with doctors across England continuing to rely on remote appointments far more than before, the Patients Association warned they should not become "the new normal" without assessing the benefits to patients.
NHS Digital data shows patients booked 79,987 appointments with practices in the NHS Wolverhampton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) area in June – 28 per cent more than in May. It was still 16 per cent fewer than the previous June.
In the Walsall CCG area, 99,684 appointments were made in June – 26 per cent more than in May – and in the Dudley CCG area there 110,868 appointments made that month – 23 per cent more than the previous month. In Walsall it was 16 per cent fewer and in Dudley it was nine per cent fewer than the previous June.
A total of 198,376 appointments were made with practices in the NHS Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG area in June – 26 per cent more than in May. It was still 12 per cent fewer than the previous June.
While in the NHS Stafford and Surrounds CCG area, 51,959 appointments were made with practices – 26 per cent more than in May. It was still 12 per cent fewer than the previous June.
And in the NHS Cannock Chase CCG area, 44,522 appointments were made in June – 25 per cent more than in May. But it was still down 11 per cent to the previous June.
But health bosses in the region are continuing to encourage people to seek help from their GP if they need medical attention. Dr Gary Free, GP and chairman of Cannock Chase Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said it was "concerning" that practices were seeing fewer people at the outset of the pandemic – and has encouraged people with symptoms of conditions, including cancer, to seek help from their GP.
While a spokesman for the Black Country and West Birmingham CCG said it is "vitally important" that people continue to use NHS services if they or a loved one needs medical attention.
Dr Free said: “It was a concern that we were seeing fewer people at the outset of the pandemic.
"We are still concerned that we are not seeing as many people with serious symptoms of conditions such as cancer.
"We are actively encouraging people to seek help if they have symptoms of a range of conditions ranging from cancer to stroke, as early diagnosis is still crucial to achieving the best outcomes.
"We have also been also reminding people it is important to ask for help if they are concerned about their mental health.
"A full range of primary care services are available for everyone although they may be delivered in a different way. It is still important to remind people that we have not seen an end to the pandemic and we still need to practice infection control measures in primary care. This means seeing more patients remotely although we have always carried out face-to-face appointments where necessary.
"The pandemic will result in some long-term changes, and this is something patients can help shape through future engagement and consultation.”
A spokesman on behalf of the Black Country and West Birmingham CCGs, said: “During the coronavirus pandemic, GP practices across the Black Country and West Birmingham have been working hard to ensure that patients continue to safely access primary care services and are able to seek advice for any health related issues that they may be worried about.
"Whilst we are seeing a steady rise in patients booking appointments across the region, GP practices are continuing to communicate with their patients so they are clear on how primary care services have changed and that these services are safe to access now and in the future.
"Locally, virtual GP appointments are being offered to patients either via telephone or video however, face-to-face appointments are also available for those who need them and are offered in a safe environment.
“GP practices across the Black Country and West Birmingham are here for their patients and it is vitally important that people continue to use NHS services if they or a loved one needs medical attention."
Patients Association chief executive, Rachel Power, said: “Patients have put up with a great deal over recent months to help the NHS cope with an unprecedented emergency – often at considerable cost to their own health and wellbeing.
"Phone, online or other types of virtual appointments cannot be allowed to become the new normal without an assessment of the benefits to patients."
The Royal College of GPs says demand at GP surgeries could surpass pre-crisis levels nationally as people feel more confident accessing services.
Chairman Martin Marshall said: “As normal services begin to resume, general practice will be at the forefront of dealing with the health consequences of the pandemic, as well as continuing to deliver routine GP services and an expanded flu vaccination programme and prepare for a potential second wave of Covid-19.
"It is essential that GPs and their teams have the necessary guidance, resources, and workforce capacity to manage these new challenges and continue to deliver good-quality care to patients.
"However, many patients – and GPs – prefer face-to-face consultations, particularly for patients with complex health needs. We need to strike a balance and be able to offer patients a range of access options to GP services to suit their needs and preferences."
An NHS spokesman added: “GPs have had to adjust the way they work to protect people from the risk of the virus – remote consultations offer a convenient, safe option for patients to access care in addition to face-to-face appointments."