Express & Star

'Our local NHS is in crisis': Patients struggling 'more than ever before' to get GP appointments as Wolverhampton surgeries move to online only booking

Wolverhampton residents today said "enough is enough" as the struggle to book a GP appointment reached new heights with several city surgeries moving to online booking only.

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Those registered under surgeries of the Health and Beyond Partnership claim the city's most vulnerable are at risk due to the new 'total triage' system.

Health bosses at the group say the new system "allows you as the patient to navigate your way to the most appropriate care without the need to phone the practice" – and have even hailed the move as "reducing our phone waiting times significantly".

But patients speaking exclusively to the Express & Star said the city's elderly, those on low incomes and others with disabilities and no internet, are missing out on vital care.

They claim this is an example of health leaders "erecting barriers" to see a family doctor face-to-face – but in turn is adding pressure onto crowded urgent care and A&E departments.

In Wolverhampton, the new total triage system has been implemented at the following practices in the Health and Beyond Partnership: Bilston Urban Village, Ettingshall Medical Centre, Parkfield Medical Centre, Woodcross Health Centre, All Saints Surgery and Grove Medical Centre.

Under the new system, patients are told to log in online at 8am to book a same day appointment. However, once the list has reached capacity they are faced with a message saying 'temporarily unavailable' and urged to try again the following morning.

Once all of the day's appointments are booked - this is the message struggling Wolverhampton patients are faced with

It states patients can still phone or attend the surgery in person to book an appointment but this is still done using the online system. However, some patients have disputed this and said they have been turned away from the surgeries.

According to the group's website on the new system, it states: "This new process enables patients to complete a new and improved online form via our website, on the phone or in reception. This will mean that you receive the right care, at the right time, with the right person. We will respond to your query appropriately and in the most convenient way."

Bosses said it comes as a "modern response" to the traditional model for primary care, which is not sustainable to manage the increasing demand.

But the experience of some of those registered under these surgeries in Wolverhampton tell a different story.

One mother, who wished to remain anonymous and is registered under Woodcross Health Centre and Parkfields, said she's tried for more than a week to book an appointment online for her three-year-old daughter.

After missing what she described as the "8am online scramble deadline" to bag a same day appointment for days on end she took her daughter to an urgent care walk-in centre instead.

She said: "To me this really is the peak of our local NHS in crisis. I phoned up a week ago to book an appointment – the person who answered the phone told me she was unable to book me an appointment over the phone and I had to do it online, specifically at 8am in the morning.

"I told her I was at work at that time and unable to do so at this time - and asked - please could you book me on while we are on the call.

"She said staff were unable to access the system and it had to be done by following a link - then and only then, can it be booked IF there are enough appointments that day. Every day I tried to book via the link but all of the appointments were quickly taken, it's created an 8am scramble deadline for online appointments. You are faced with a message that says 'temporarily unavailable'.

"In the end I took my daughter to the walk-in centre.

"But doesn't this show there will be extra pressure on urgent care and A&E? What about those who are elderly or disabled? What about those on low incomes who can't afford the internet? While I was in reception I overheard several people trying to do the same thing and finding the process so obstructive, that they left the surgery without having obtained an appointment.

"I know the NHS is in crisis and people waste time going to the doctor for unnecessary issues but surely there's a way to cut phone and appointment wait and wastage without running the risk of making the city's most vulnerable suffer even further? Where is the compassion?.

"From what I heard at the surgery, these people are not being helped and left to struggle. I truly believe this Tory government has ruined our NHS, from GP surgeries to hospital care – and those who are most hurt are the poorest and most vulnerable."

Another elderly woman, who lives alone unable to read or write and without internet use, attended one of the Health & Beyond surgeries to explain how she was unable to book her own appointment online.

She said she was told by receptionists at the surgery that they could not access the system on her behalf and she should find someone who could fill the online form in on her behalf.

She explained she could not do this – and was told that day's appointments had gone but to return the following day for a member of staff to help her fill in the online form.

She said: "I live on my own and can't read or write. I have no internet and no one to fill the form in for me. I went into the reception and was told by the staff they could not access the system for me as all that day's appointments had gone and could I find someone who could fill the form in on my behalf the following morning – or if not to come back in person at 8am.

"I feel like enough really is enough – after Covid and everything we've all been through, people who need to see a doctor should be able to by simply phoning up to book an appointment. Is that too much to ask?"

It was reported earlier this year that one in six GP practices across in the UK is now taking bookings online only.

Dr Salma Reehana, principal GP at Health and Beyond Partnership, said: "In line with expectations from modern general practice, Health and Beyond has implemented a 'total triage' system in some of its practices. We have done this after engagement with our staff and patient participation groups.

“Patients can still call us or come into the practice, and we will complete the triage form on their behalf. Regardless of how patients contact us, requests are dealt with on the same day and a response is given to patients on the best way to get help, which includes a GP appointment if clinically appropriate.

“This has reduced our phone waiting times significantly and we are able to offer more appointments to patients than ever before."

Apology issued to Wolverhampton patients struggling to book an appointment – but the system has been praised

Sarb Basi, director of primary care for the NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said: “We are sorry to hear that a number of patients at Health and Beyond Partnership are struggling to access appointments.

“Primary Care teams across the Black Country are working harder than ever to ensure patients get the care they need whilst the demand for GP services continues to increase. The traditional model for primary care is not sustainable to manage the increasing demand so it is being modernised to make services fit for the future.

“Many practices, including the Health and Beyond Partnership, are beginning this journey by introducing a new ‘Total Triage’ system, which allows patients to navigate their way to the most appropriate care online, without the need to phone the practice. However, patients will still be able to continue to request an appointment via telephone and walking into the practice.

“We will continue to work with Health and Beyond to ensure this message is made clear to all patients.

“It is key that people continue to use GP services if they are feeling unwell or are concerned about any symptoms which are not normal for them.”

The national picture: Campaign group for the elderly

A survey in November by Silver Voices, a campaign group for the elderly, found one in six pensioners said their practice would not accept phone calls to make an appointment. It also found eight in 10 elderly patients said they had been forced into phone appointments when they wanted to see a doctor face-to-face.

The move follows a long campaign by the patients’ group, which recently sent health officials a list of 30 surgeries which were only allowing online booking.

Several have since amended their systems, though many of those which now take calls say they will only accept them from patients who have no internet access. Others still publicly state that they will only take online bookings, though say that they will take calls from those who are unable to use such systems.

Dennis Reed, from Silver Voices, said: “Silver Voices lost patience with the large numbers of GP practices who were ignoring the terms of their contracts with NHS England and only offering online appointment request systems."

Rise in four-week waits for GP appointments across Black Country

The number of four-week waits for a GP appointment rose by 31 per cent in for the Black Country and West Birmingham last year, new research has revealed.

Liberal Democrats say they examined NHS data measuring the time between when a GP appointment was booked and when it took place, broken down by local NHS areas across England.

Every single local area in the country saw a rise in four-week GP waits in 2023 compared to the previous year. Figures come out of the 112 NHS trusts.

The increases between 2022 and 2023 for the Black Country and West Birmingham were as follows:

  • Number of appointment waits of more than 14 days in 2022 was 848,859, but in 2023 this had increased to 1,040,285, an increase of 23 per cent.

  • Number of appointment waits of more than 28 days in 2022 was 215,389 -but in 2023 was 281,217 up 31 per cent and 7 per cent annual change.

Despite the rise, health bosses say more same day appointments have been offered in the same time period compared to the previous year.

Sarb Basi, Director of Primary Care for the NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said: “Primary Care teams across the Black Country are working harder than ever to ensure patients get the care they need whilst the demand for GP services continues to increase.

“In 2023, we offered over 225,000 more same day appointments compared to the previous year, and over 470,000 more appointments overall. All appointments are triaged to ensure patients have a timely appointment with the most appropriate health professional depending on their need.

“We continue to work with our local GP practices to ensure a range of appointment options are available for patients.

"In the Black Country, the percentage of appointments over 14 days and 28 days has increased, which is in line with national average, however the overall number of appointments we’ve offered has also increased significantly:

"In 2022, we delivered 330,000 more appointments compared to 2019 pre-pandemic and in 2023, we delivered 800,000 more appointments than 2019 pre-pandemic.

"There are some appointments, where appropriate, that are scheduled further in advance such as screening appointments, health checks or immunisations. In cases where people’s needs are more urgent, appointments are available on the same day."

Liberal Democrat MPs are calling for patients to be given a legal right to see their GP within seven days – or 24-hours if in urgent need.

This comes as a survey by the King’s Fund found only a third of people are satisfied with GP services, the lowest since records began in 1983. Since 2019, satisfaction with GP services has fallen by 34 per cent.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "We are committed to improving access to GPs, and thanks to sticking with our plan for a faster, simpler, fairer healthcare system, we are now delivering 50 million more GP appointments per year.

“Our Primary Care Recovery Plan, backed by £645 million over two years, marks a major investment into primary care services. This includes expanding the services offered by community pharmacies through Pharmacy First which will help free up to 10 million GP appointments per year.

“We are also investing £240 million on digital tools, telephony and training to ensure GP surgeries have what they need to improve access for patients."

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