Tens of thousands fewer than expected GP appointments recorded in region over a month

Tens of thousands fewer than expected GP appointments were recorded in the Black Country and Staffordshire during one month – as concerns around coronavirus put people off visiting their doctor.

In England, 7.7 million fewer appointments were made in April than 12 months previously, a reduction of a third
In England, 7.7 million fewer appointments were made in April than 12 months previously, a reduction of a third

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has urged patients to seek help if they need it and said surgeries must have adequate resources to cope with a predicted increase in demand as lockdown eases further.

But the NHS says changes in how practices operate during the Covid-19 pandemic may have affected the figures, with remote appointment sessions underreported.

NHS Digital data shows that patients booked in to see their doctor on 60,986 occasions in the Wolverhampton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) area in April this year – down 37 per cent, from 93,319 in April 2019.

A 37 per cent drop was also seen in Walsall CCG area – where 75,902 appointments were made in April, compared to 121,373 in the same month last year.

While, Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG also saw a 37 per cent drop, from 245,403 to 156,603 – and Dudley CCG saw a 31 per cent drop, 87,589 in April compared to 126,694 in the same month the previous year.

In the Cannock Chase CCG area, there was a 36 per cent drop – from 51,701 in April 2019, to 33,021 in April 2020.

And data shows that patients under the Stafford and Surrounds CCG booked to see their GP on 40,379 occasions in April – a 34 per cent drop from 60,801 the previous April.

The decrease was similar to that across England as a whole, where 7.7 million fewer appointments were made in April than 12 months previously, a reduction of a third.

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the RCGP, said people may be worried about overburdening NHS services during the coronavirus crisis, or contracting the virus themselves.

Serious

He added: “However, if anyone is seriously ill or concerned about their health, we would strongly urge them to contact their GP practice or 111 – and in an emergency situation, call 999.

“The reality is unmanaged or untreated conditions may not go away and may get worse and this could cause serious consequences.”

The NHS said the drop-off in recorded appointments does not necessarily mean GPs are seeing fewer patients. It said practices are likely to be operating differently in response to the pandemic, including the use of more list appointments, in which contact with several patients is only counted once, while online and video sessions “may also not be routinely captured”.

In the Wolverhampton CCG area, 52 per cent of sessions were logged as having been completed over the phone in April, significantly up from just five per cent a year previously.

Elsewhere in the Black Country, in Walsall it was 53 per cent up from nine per cent, in Sandwell and West Birmingham 52 per cent up from 11 per cent, and in Dudley 49 per cent up from seven per cent.

And in Staffordshire, in Cannock Chase it was 61 per cent up from five per cent and in Stafford and Surrounds 60 per cent up from 12 per cent.

Nationally, the number of sessions logged as having been completed over the phone jumped from 14 per cent last year to 48 per cent in April.

Stafford GP Dr Paddy Hannigan

Stafford GP and chairman of the Stafford and Surrounds CCG, Dr Paddy Hannigan, said: "GP practices have had to dramatically change the way that they operate because of the impact of coronavirus, and this has had to be done at unprecedented pace.

“Most patients are being seen remotely, which has presented a huge technological challenge but one that has been risen to.

"It is however important that we do continue to see some patients face-to-face with the proper infection control measures in place. This means that some appointments require more time which has been another challenge.

“We have been actively supporting the NHS Help Us Help You campaign 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 are also reminding people it is important to ask for help if they are concerned about their mental health.

“I would emphasise that primary care services are available for everyone although they may be delivered in a different way.”

A spokesman for 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.

“To keep patients and healthcare staff safe, GP practices across the region have temporarily changed some of their services, such as conducting face-to-face appointments by telephone or video. These changes to how GP practices are operating, may be impacting NHS data, because some digital appointments such as telephone and video consultations are not currently being reported.

Restoration

“We are also aware that some people may not be accessing the NHS for care because they either don’t want to be a burden or because they are fearful about catching the virus.

“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.

“Over the coming months the NHS will be focusing on the restoration and recovery of healthcare services, ensuring patients and the public are clear on when services are reinstated and that these services are safe.”

Raj Patel, deputy medical director of primary care at NHS England, said: “Even during these unprecedented times, if people need help from a family doctor they are able to get it.

“Our GPs are quickly adapting to new technology – including phone and video consultations – to continue providing care in a different way.”

Nationally, health bosses have warned that surgeries must have adequate resources to cope with a predicted increase in demand as coronavirus lockdown eases further over the coming months.

Professor Marshall added: "As we move into the next steps of the pandemic it's imperative that the NHS is given the attention and resources it has been at the height of Covid-19.

“General practice must be adequately resourced to deal with the predicted increase in demand as GPs care for patients who may have put off symptoms during the peak of Covid-19, outpatients managing Covid-19 at home, and those suffering from indirect side effects of the pandemic, such as associated mental health conditions."

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