New data released by the NHS covering Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and part of Somerset has thrown a spotlight on the huge increase in workload faced by GP practices as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of appointments offered has risen by an average of 11.8% compared to July two years ago – with Hampshire facing the biggest increase at 16.4%, followed by Wiltshire and part of Somerset combined at 13.2%. The increase was less, but still sizeable, in Dorset at 8.8%. The data includes towns such as Swindon, Fareham and Gosport, Southampton and Portsmouth, as well as the Isle of Wight.
As well as a GP shortage, there has been further pressure caused by population growth, a rise in people seeking mental health support and a backlog of routine treatment. GP surgeries have also had to adapt to new ways of working, introduced new technology for online appointments and given Covid patients oxygen saturation equipment to monitor them remotely. They have also carried out far more flu jabs than ever before.
Wessex Local Medical Committees (LMC), which represents the region’s GPs and practices, is urging patients to be far more understanding of the pressure their local surgeries are under.
Dr Gareth Bryant, Acting Chief Executive of the LMC and a GP in Wiltshire, said: “We are not looking for sympathy, just a better understanding of what we are coping with. Our GP practices have faced unprecedented demand, partly due to delivering the Covid vaccination programme and supporting patients who are ill with coronavirus, and also because they are being affected by the backlog elsewhere in the NHS.
“At the same time, there is a national shortage of GPs and practices are adapting as best they can by recruiting other staff to their teams such a physiotherapists, mental health practitioners and pharmacists. They are trying to get through appointments as best they can but there may be some delays. The Government has promised that more GPs will be recruited but it’s not happening at the speed or the levels we need.
“Our teams have put themselves in the frontline and been exposed to considerable personal risk, sometimes at the expense of their own physical, mental, and families’ health. We have sadly lost colleagues and loved ones to this terrible virus too. Many staff in the NHS are stressed and burnt out.
“We want to encourage people to give their support to their GP practice, whose staff are being kind, patient and responsible, and who are doing everything they can to support their local communities in such difficult circumstances. Our practices in the Wessex area are rated as good by over 83% of the public and even higher in most places – above the national average.”
One of the reasons for the increase in appointments undertaken, even taking into account that over 50,000 people a month fail to attend their appointments, is the rise of email, phone calls and video appointments, up 132.77% from 276,590 in July two years ago, to 643,807 this July. Face-to-face appointments are down 11.43% on average.
LMC Medical Director Dr Andy Purbrick, a GP Partner in Dorset, added: “As independent businesses, GPs have responded extremely well to the challenges of the pandemic and shown themselves to be resilient, adaptable and innovative in the way they protect both patients and staff. They should be praised for the ways in which they have adjusted, including introducing additional technology and communication channels. However, the appointment can often take longer online and result in asking someone to come in to see their GP, duplicating the time involved.
“GPs much prefer to see people face to face, recognising that many ailments cannot be effectively picked up over a phone call or email, and over half of the appointments are being done this way. However, their priority is to keep everyone safe and for many people, online technology or phone call is a more effective way of communicating when it comes to issues that are less serious.”