Jayne Dowle: It’s time to heed the call – too many can’t ring a GP

WILL they believe us now it is official? The number of people struggling to get through to their GP on the phone is going up and up, according to a new report from no less a body than the National Audit Office.

This is not some spurious survey or opinion poll spin. These are official figures, in black and white, collected from thousands of people in England. In the past year, 27 per cent of patients have said that it is not easy to get through to their GP by calling the surgery, compared with 19 per cent in 2011-12.

That’s more than a quarter of us who can’t even contact our doctor when we need to. Until you have been there on the end of the line listening to the engaged tone over and over again, or worse, had to negotiate an automated switchboard, you have no idea how frustrating this is.

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If you don’t believe me, just talk to my parents. They are both in their 70s and not in the best of health. It’s bad enough being poorly, without the stress of
trying to get help from the impersonal tones of an answering machine. By the time they do actually get to see a doctor, their blood pressure is going through the roof.

Sorry to be the prophet of doom, but if the number of people struggling has gone up by eight per cent in four years, it’s not likely to go down any time soon. You can dress it up all you like, but our National Health Service is no longer the envy of the world. It’s an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that.

In general practice, at least, the service part is becoming virtually non-existent. I’ve got British friends who moved to Sweden several years ago in search of a better quality of life. They simply cannot believe the hassle we have just even getting to see a doctor. And don’t even begin to ask them about how drastically different the experience of being treated in hospital is over there. In England, it’s a miracle anyone ever even makes it to a ward.

That’s why I hope every doctor in
the country reads these new figures. I hope every doctor’s receptionist and practice secretary reads them too. Most of all though, I hope that Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, reads them and accepts that this is not a situation we should be having to face in the developed world.

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His department needs to know what is going on at grass roots level. There is more in this report to raise concerns, but let’s leave aside the issues over waiting times and opening times for a moment and concentrate on this particular point.

It bears repeating. More than a quarter of all NHS patients in England are struggling to get medical help when they need it. The basic communication system is failing. Sick people can’t get to see a doctor. Worried people are putting off attempting to seek atttention because they know what a struggle it is to even get through the surgery doors.

How many thousands of us must be lying awake at night – or sitting up surfing the internet – fretting over a problem that could be addressed by that elusive appointment?

And how many more thousands of us, driven to desperation, end up in A&E because there is no other recourse?

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You don’t need me or yet another official report to outline what the
knock-on effect of this is, you just need
to sit there for a few hours and see
the people who come in with flu symptoms and food poisoning. The failure to deliver proper medical care in the community is stretching our emergency services stretched beyond all reasonable limits.

I’ve got a car. And a voice. If I was seriously concerned about myself or a family member, I would take myself to the surgery, present myself in person and get it sorted out.

For many people though, the elderly for instance, the housebound, the parents of young children and those who live in isolated rural communities, direct action is not always an option.

And it is not always the answer. I know of surgeries where the receptionist sits behind a glass screen and there are members of staff on hand to eject those who lose their temper in the waiting room.

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Does Jeremy Hunt sanction this, do you think? Has he heard of stress? Does he think it is acceptable too to push already over-stretched doctors into working longer and harder, without actually addressing the basic needs of patients?

His grand and lofty ideas for increasing access to GPs seven days a week, with extended opening hours at the evening and weekends sound ideal. How, though, can these initiatives work, when so many people can’t even access their doctor with a basic telephone call?

I suggest he sets up a task-force to concentrate on solving this most fundamental of matters before he even thinks about anything else. I’ll even give him a ring and have a chat about it if he likes, but somehow I don’t think I will get through on the phone.