Survey reveals difficulty many face accessing GP telephone appointment

Patients at many Black Country surgeries are finding it harder than the national average to access GP telephone appointments, research has shown.

According to a survey many doctors’ surgeries in Sandwell are falling below the national average for the ease of receiving a GP appointment via telephone.

The national average stands at 68 per cent while the local target, set by the Black Country Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), is 59 per cent.

The GP Patient Survey, an independent survey run by Ipsos MORI on behalf of NHS England, showed vastly different experiences for patients depending on where they are registered.

It revealed that Linkway Medical Practice, in West Bromwich, had only 37 per cent of patients who found it easy to get through to their practice by phone.

But the top performing was Rood End Medical Practice where 92 per cent of patients managed to get in touch with their GP.

Oldbury Health Centre had 47 per cent of patients find it easy to get through to their practice by phone.

Rose Parkes, who lives in Oldbury, said: “The reception at Oldbury Health Centre is via a window on the carpark, everyone on the car park can hear your business.

“I’m short and I can’t really see the receptionist properly so talking loudly is my only option.

“God knows how wheelchair users get on. It’s not at all confidential.”

Alan, a resident of Bearwood, said: “I have needed more GP care than usual in the past 18 months. I haven’t seen my GP in all that time. Instead to protect each other from potentially passing on Covid all my contacts have been by telephone.

“On one occasion I ensured I was office based by the time I knew afternoon clinic was starting. I was worried once I left work and hadn’t been called yet. After 5pm my GP rang, she’d decided to put me for a call after 5pm as she knew I’d be at work.”

He applauded his local GP for going above and beyond after a “miscommunication” between himself and the practice, and the changes the practice had made.

He said: “This is why GPs are so important, the doctor who knows you and can provide the care needed for you as a individual. It’s why we need our local GP practices, not outsource to remote workers. Sick notes have been emailed to me, to prevent numbers attending the practice with the risks of Covid, meaning I can then easily email it to my boss.

“Telephone triage was a national policy given to GPs with the aim of reducing the spread of Covid. If patients don’t agree with this then they need to complain to those nationally who made the policy not local GP practices.”

Others have not been so lucky with waiting times.

Seema Begum, from Cape Hill, said she has tried to call at 7:58am – before the 8am opening times – to book an appointment for the last two weeks. After being on hold for 45 minutes, she says patients are turned away after being told there are no appointments.

“They are becoming worse and worse. You can't even book one for a later date.

“I have complained so much and kicked up a fuss when I couldn’t take the pain of my swollen feet and ankles anymore. They miraculously found an appointment, but that’s only because I asked for details of who to complain to.

She added: “I understand it’s busy, but aren’t we all? I actually work for an NHS pharmacy and we have worked all the way through Covid unlike the GPs who literally closed their doors.

“As we are getting back to normal and everything else is open I can’t understand why my GP face-to-face appointments are not fully available.”

It comes as NHS patients are waiting more than three months for vital tests, as a surge in appointments needed has been recorded. This is said to be largely due to patients holding off on visiting their GP during the pandemic, and are now seeking medical advice.

Almost 124,000 people were kept waiting more than three months in 2021, compared with 5,675 in 2019.

People referred to hospital for tests are supposed to be treated within six weeks, according to NHS England’s constitution. But more than 306,000 people were waiting more than six weeks for a range of diagnostic tests.

Sarb Basi, Director of Primary Care, Black Country and West Birmingham CCG: “ We are grateful for the work of our local GPs throughout the pandemic and for their efforts to restore services to pre-pandemic levels of capacity.

“With Covid-19 still circulating in our communities it is right that they continue to take steps to protect the level of service they can offer by taking precautions and seeing some patients in a different way.

“As the commissioner of GP services, we are keeping a close eye on the data to ensure that appointments are being made available and we are sorry to hear that the experience for some patients is not as we would want. We will continue to identify the areas where we have variation and support practices to respond to our patients’ needs.”

Prof Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has told MPs that making all GP appointments face-to-face is “undeliverable”.

Giving evidence to the Commons health and social care committee on Tuesday, Prof Marshall was asked whether patients had a right to see their GPs.

He said: “People are saying that the patient should have a right.

“There’s no point in having a right if it’s undeliverable and it is essentially undeliverable at the moment, because of the workload pressures.

“[The pandemic] might be over for pubs and nightclubs, it’s not over for health services,” he added.

“It’s really important that if you run a health service, whether it be in general practice or in hospitals, that you protect vulnerable patients.

“The prevalence [is] around one in 70 and 80 patients in this country have got Covid, so the idea of having somebody who is fit and healthy but shedding the virus sitting next to someone who’s vulnerable in a waiting room is just not something that’s acceptable.”

Councillor Suzanne Hartwell, cabinet member for adults, social care and health and chair of Sandwell health & wellbeing board said: “Our local NHS staff have been amazing throughout the pandemic.

“I am so grateful to every single one of them. However, we urge the Government to acknowledge the reality of what patients are experiencing and give the NHS the investment and support it needs.

“According to the British Medical Association, England has far fewer doctors to per person than comparable EU countries. Estimates are that we are over 50,000 doctors short. As we head into what will certainly be a difficult winter, this isn’t good enough. Patients and healthcare staff deserve better.”

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