Jayne Dowle: NHS faces chaos when the doctor won’t see you now

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IT took me two days to get through to my doctor’s surgery. The phone was constantly engaged, or on answerphone. When I finally did manage to make contact, it took me a week and a half to get an appointment.

I’m glad I wasn’t sick or anything. My father has been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition and I need a scan to find out if I carry the gene too. Thankfully, it’s not life or death at the moment. It needs addressing though, and I need a referral letter for the hospital from my GP.

I didn’t expect to be pushed right to the front of the queue, but then again I didn’t expect to ring on the Thursday and to be told to come a week on Tuesday. What if it had been urgent? As a generally healthy adult with no chronic health conditions, would I still have been shoved to the back? Well, if everything we hear about NHS waiting times is true, the answer to that is yes.

Report after report, survey after survey, tells us that the wait to see a GP is getting longer. Up to a fortnight will become the norm. I ask you – how can a family practitioner deliver a safe and reliable service to their patients if those patients can’t even get through the door?

What we’re witnessing is a perfect storm which threatens to engulf the NHS in chaos. Reforms to GPs’ working practices have seen mass re-organisation of their services on an unprecedented scale. This has led to a restructuring of the way that surgeries operate with serious repercussions for patients. Let’s leave aside the complex and byzantine funding arrangements for a moment, because it’s debatable whether anyone fully understands these, even the GPs and surgery managers.

Let’s concentrate instead on basic operating principles. For instance, what kind of organisation these days has the liberty to close for an hour at lunchtime? Or even for an afternoon a week? I can’t think of a single shop or office where this still happens, yet I kept getting a recorded message to this effect when I was trying to ring up for my appointment.

Surely if surgeries opened longer, more people would be seen? Ah, but put this argument forward and doctors’ leaders weigh in with the evidence that there’s a recruitment crisis. Not enough GPs to staff surgeries properly because not enough medical school graduates want to be family doctors. Who can blame them?

And please don’t direct me to the NHS 111 advice service. With the utmost respect to those who man the helplines, I simply can’t see the point of ringing. If something is bothering me or my children, I want it looking at properly, and not diagnosed from the end of a telephone line. I’d be better off looking it up on YouTube.

Is it any wonder that GPs are driven mad by patients who have “self-diagnosed” their health problems on the internet? You can see how dangerous this can be. Then again though, a worried person has to find something to do to pass the time whilst waiting all those days for their appointment.

At the same time, we have elderly people who living longer and stretching resources which are already at breaking point. The story of the 95-year-old widow in Norfolk removed from her surgery’s books made the headlines recently, but how many more elderly people are being jettisoned like this?

Add to this a rising population and we’re facing a situation in which one in four visitors to hospital A&E departments end up there because they can’t get an appointment with their so-called family doctor. Indeed, such is the waiting list at some surgeries to even be taken on the books, many people don’t bother and just use the local hospital as a drop-in centre. It’s shocking but not surprising that at the end of last month, the number of patients arriving at casualty reached a record high of almost 300,000, a rise of 10 per cent on the same period three years ago.

I don’t know how the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt can sleep at night. How can he preside over this situation, see the footage of queues in A&E and the tears in an elderly widow’s eyes and not find the wherewithal to do anything about it? The NHS was the legacy of a post-war government intend on providing decent healthcare for all. What a legacy this government will leave.

One final thing. After all that, I never got to see the doctor at all. My son came home from school with agonising pain in his knee. It was so bad that he could hardly walk. It was a flare-up of a condition he will eventually grow out of, but we need advice on how to manage it. I rang for an appointment, miraculously got through, and was told – inevitably – that it would be several days before a GP could see him.

Guess what I did? I rang back and swapped my own appointment to his. I put him first. If only the NHS treated its patients the same.