One GP surgery in Bedford recently received over 45,000 telephone calls in one month – well over the pre-pandemic norm of 27-29,000 calls.
David Picking, head of primary care development and transformation at Bedford, Luton and Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group (BLMK CCG) gave the staggering statistic to Bedford Borough Council’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (13 September).
In a report sent to the Committee, BLMK CCG said it is “acutely aware” of the difficulties that patients are currently facing when contacting their GP practices.
He said that primary care is currently experiencing a “challenging time” and that “contrary to current perception this is not due to a reduction in available GP appointments, it is an issue of unprecedented demand for services”.
“So the amount of contact into general practice has increased significantly”, Mr Picking said.
“Things are beginning to return to normal, but with an unprecedented demand due to limited primary care during the lockdown periods.”
Mr Picking said that Covid restrictions are still in place, so patients can’t walk in a GP surgery.
“The initial contact with most GPs would be via the online medium every practice in Bedford Borough uses ”, he said, “Or by contacting them for a telephone consultation, which then gets triaged.”
Cllr Kay Burley (Labour, Kempston Central & East Ward) asked, “Would you agree that problems existed prior to the pandemic, which has just made things worse?”
“I think that there will always be pressures on GP phone systems”, Mr Picking said. “There isn’t a plethora of people practices can call upon to answer the phones, you need some level of training.
“Otherwise you can get the wrong messages out and patients could be in a situation where they are not being helped appropriately.”
Cllr Graeme Coombes (Conservative, Wilshamstead Ward) who was chairing the meeting asked, “What action is being taken to get this under control so that people can actually get an appointment in a reasonable amount of time?”
“We are working with a number of practices across the BLMK footprint with NHS England’s support around specific access issues”, Mr Picking replied.
“Sometimes access issues are because reception staff do not have an appointment to offer.
“Sometimes access issues are because we have too many phone calls and we can’t get the phone answered in time.”
Councillor Coombes asked, “How does somebody who only has access to a telephone get access to the help to which they are entitled?”
Mr Picking replied, “If they haven’t been successful [in getting an appointment] the escalation for any individual is through the patient advice and liaison at the CCG or colleagues at Healthwatch.
“If the patient does get through but has a really unreasonable wait every practice has a practice manager and every patient can ask to speak to them.”
by John Guinn Local Democracy Reporter
with additional reporting by the Bedford Independent
Update: This article was updated at 13:05 on 27 September 2021 to remove the quote referencing Consultant Connect following communication from its representative: “This quote incorrectly represents how the service works, patients do not have access to it (the system allows GPs to access consultants) and don’t need to go through Consultant Connect in order to get a GP appointment.”
A link to a letter previously received by the Bedford Independent about the impact of not being able to get a GP appointment has also been added.