GP phone appointments surge during lockdown - and they are here to stay
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The number of GP appointments carried out over the phone has tripled during the pandemic – and that revolution is here to stay, health experts said today.
Figures from NHS Digital reveal 80pc of appointments in Norfolk and Waveney were carried out face-to-face in February.
But by July that had fallen to 60pc. Nationally it is even lower at 50pc.
In that time, telephone consultations soared, tripling from 11pc in February to 30pc now. In Suffolk, the rise has been even starker with 40pc over the phone.
The NHS figures show that in July 295,000 GP appointments were face-to-face and 155,000 over the phone in Norfolk and Waveney.
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Dr Tim Morton, a GP in Beccles and chair of the Local Medical Committee, said patients needed to get used to appointments being delivered in a “very different way”.
“A lot of clinical interaction does not require face-toface access,” he said. “The efficiencies of telephone consultations have been very evident (during the pandemic).”
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He said patients who needed to be seen for a physical examination would still be and he acknowledged that some patients struggled with phone or online consultations.
“Not seeing a patient’s body language is an issue but it is about balancing that with being able to access the service in the first place,” he said.
A YouGov survey in The Times last week showed just over half of people had found it harder to book a GP appointment since coronavirus hit.
Lack of access to GPs has also led to fears that people will head to A&E instead.
In July, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital’s emergency department dealt with a record number of patients at 15,000, smashing the previous record of 13,000 in July 2019.
One hospital worker said: “There are those who are attending A&E having been unable to access proper GP care.”
But the hospital’s chief operating officer, Chris Cobb, said: “We continue to work with our partners across the Norfolk and Waveney system to address this increase in demand. We also have a number of measures already in place where we are working with GP colleagues.”
Patient group Healthwatch Norfolk said access to GPs was emerging as a key issue.
Its chief executive Alex Stewart said their survey of patients showed 70pc really liked telephone appointments, but the 30pc who found them difficult should not be forgotten.
On the Eastern Daily Press’ Facebook page many patients said they preferred phone appointments.
Peter Everitt wrote: “It is much easier now they are rid of the daily time wasters.”
Robbie Preston wrote: “My GP seems to have more time for me than usual.”
Emily Beaumont said: “I’m loving the new system. There is no waiting around.”
But others said they still found it hard to get a phone appointment.
Healthwatch Norfolk said issues with phone appointments included doctors being unable to pick up on a patient’s body language and confusion about prescriptions.
Mr Stewart said: “We have had some incidents where people have been diagnosed with cancer, have had drugs prescribed over the phone and it has not been explained to them they need to stop taking their previous drugs.”
Central Suffolk MP Dan Poulter, who is also a doctor, said there could be “unintended consequences” on sicker patients.
“In some cases, technology has slowed down the process of getting people to the right care,” he said.
“If you have a breast lump requiring examination, the phone call or virtual appointment is often a gatekeeping service which can slow the next step down and delay it by days or even weeks.”
Guy Forster, a medical negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, said: “A particular area of concern is the significant drop in the number of urgent cancer referrals that were recorded at the height of the pandemic.
“While progress is starting to be made in this area we anticipate the effects of this will continue to be felt for many months.”
A spokesperson for the Norfolk and Waveney clinical commissioning group (CCG) said: “Many people appreciate different and convenient ways of getting help. But we also understand for some people this is not appropriate, so in these situations a face-to-face appointment can be discussed with your doctor or nurse.”