Jayne Dowle: GP surgeries have become an emergency case

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Struggles to get an appointment reveal scale of problem.

MY dad can only see in one eye. He was in a serious motorbike accident when he was a teenager and severed his optic nerve. That’s why the sight in his other, working, eye is so precious. You might think that his GP’s practice would be aware of this. You might think that given that he is in his early seventies, with a serious heart condition, he would be a priority. You might think that when he gets an infection in his good eye which simply won’t go away, seriously affecting his sight and his ability to carry on his daily life, he would be able to go and see his doctor pretty sharpish. Not these days.

For a start, the surgery where he has been registered for decades has introduced a new computerised appointments system. This means that when you ring up, you can’t actually speak to a person. At all. It used to be bad enough, calling and calling and the phone either being engaged or just no-one answering it.

However, at least when you did finally get through it was to a human being to whom you could talk and explain your circumstances. And technically, dad is on a special list which is reserved for patients with chronic health problems such as his heart condition. He is supposed to be catapulted to the top of the appointments queue automatically. Unfortunately, the computer doesn’t seem to recognise this arrangement, which puts all the good work his actual GP has done setting it up to waste.

The recorded message starts off with the words: “Welcome to the Dove Valley practice...” What it really means is, “Welcome to the NHS in 2015, a place where you will be waiting two weeks to see your family doctor”.

When dad did finally manage to make contact – he actually went into the surgery to speak to the receptionist in person – he was given a date of September 29, almost a fortnight away. And what if his eye problem does not improve in this time? Is he to suffer and worry that he is going blind while he waits? Imagine what this is doing to a medical condition already made worse by stress and anxiety.

There is no point going to A&E, because the first thing the triage nurse will ask him is if he has seen his GP. How can he see his GP though, when he can’t get an appointment until the end of the month? The surgery have advised him to keep trying and ringing. But imagine for a moment how many other people with emergencies or sick children or an urgent need for a prescription are trying and ringing. And then you might be able to imagine just what a desperate state our doctors’ surgeries are in.

Put simply, there are not enough GPs to meet our needs, and the ones we do have are over-worked and over-stretched. Add to this an ageing and growing population and you have a toxic situation which is putting lives at risk.

We hear mostly about those who have problems securing an appointment with their doctor. What though of those who are suffering but can see no point in even making contact because they would have to wait so long?

How many serious illnesses are going undiagnosed because individuals just can’t face the task of attempting to book an appointment?

It’s a year since Dr Maureen Baker, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, called the waiting times for appointments a “national disgrace”. At this stage, NHS figures suggested that one in six patients had to wait at least a week before they saw a doctor or a practice nurse.

Nothing I have heard or witnessed in the past 12 months suggests that the situation has improved. Indeed all the anecdotal evidence suggests that it has got even worse.

Only the other day I read a story which told of how a family with a baby rang their surgery 300 times in an attempt to secure a prescription for the special food she needs for a serious intolerance condition. In the end the father had to take a taxi to the hospital to fetch it.

I’d like the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to know that this is what is happening to ordinary people, every day. The Government has committed to increasing the number of medical graduates who go into general practice from 40 per cent to 50 per cent, but no way will this meet the needs of the public, especially when it comes to attracting recruits to deprived or remote rural areas.

The “improvements” to the way surgeries are run, which include that computerised appointments system causing so many problems for my dad, may eventually help to some extent. No measure though can beat more investment in more doctors.

Really, there is nothing else for it. The Government has got to treat GP surgeries as an emergency case.

Jayne Dowle