Many patients are experiencing frustration and irritation at being unable to access GP appointments as they did before the pandemic. Some complain that they would like to see a doctor face to face and they are only offered phone appointments, others that they can’t get through to the reception staff or that all the appointments are booked that day by the time they’ve got through.
There has been an unprecedented demand on healthcare since the pandemic, and a shortage of doctors and other health professionals that pre-date the pandemic. They are doing their best to serve the public in challenging times, but that might feel like cold comfort when you feel your problem needs attention. So what are your options? Let’s talk you through where to go and when.
You can register for online services, and this may be a fast-track way to order prescriptions, ask a quick question or request an appointment.
Many GP practices ask you to fill out an online questionnaire. While endless questions might be tedious, it’s worth being clear about your problem, how urgent it is, and any expectations you have for treatment. The doctor that triages this may offer an appointment in person rather than phone-first, or they may arrange tests or prescriptions without you needing an appointment. They may diagnose a rash based on the photo you send, without the inconvenience of coming in. They will also triage the urgency, depending on the information you provide.
Surgeries have introduced a range of allied health professionals (AHPs) – pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physiotherapists, occupation therapists – who can help with specific aspects of your care, and may be able to prescribe medication. The online form may be a way to access one of these AHPs.
Some areas offer extended access GP appointments, which is pre-bookable or same-day appointments in the early morning, evenings or weekends. It will be a GP based within your area, but not necessarily at your own practice. The advantage is that they can see your medical records, and write in the notes or prescribe as if you are seeing your own GP.
Some areas offer direct access to a physiotherapy service or psychology service, and you can refer yourself without having to see a doctor. Your GP reception staff or website may be able to direct you.
It’s worth bearing in mind that GPs are unable to treat any emergency dental problems. Only dentists are qualified to treat tooth and gum problems. Most dentists offer emergency or same-day appointments. If you experience problems out of hours, your dentist’s answer message may tell you where to seek help, or if you don’t have a dentist, 111 will be able to advise you.
The emergency department is there for conditions that are serious and can’t wait – chest pain, difficulty in breathing, a child with a very high temperature and rash, and an elderly person with confusion and a likely urine infection.
They can order blood tests, ECGs for the heart, urine tests and X-rays there and then, and issue the right medication, such as intravenous antibiotics. They can treat a suspected heart attack, stroke, a complex road injury, sepsis or a child with meningitis.
They will triage your problem at the beginning, rating it in terms of urgency, so you may have to sit and wait to be seen, and they won’t have your medical records to know other conditions or your usual medication. But they can provide urgent medication or other treatment, should you need it.
Consider this a half-way house between A&E and the GP surgery. It’s usually a unit within a hospital or other healthcare setting that is run by GPs, and open for at least 12 hours a day, every day. You can usually drop-in, or there may be same-day appointments accessible via your GP surgery or the 111 call centre.
This team can treat suspected broken bones, ear or throat infections, minor burns, urine infections, insect bites or skin rashes, to name a few.
They can order same-day tests like blood tests, X-rays or an ECG, and they can refer on to the emergency department, if necessary.
An urgent care or treatment centre, walk-in centre and minor injury unit are all names for essentially the same set-up.
The 111 phone line is manned all day, every day, by call handlers who can put you through to a nurse practitioner or a doctor, or advise you where is best to seek help. You can also access them by their website, 111.nhs.uk They don’t have access to your medical records, but they can offer advice and prescriptions over the phone, or appointments at a regional centre near you. For those who are house-bound, they sometimes offer home visits if urgently needed. Otherwise your GP will take care of home visits.
Pharmacists are expert at helping with minor ailments and common problems – that unsesttled tummy or niggling headache, a muscle sprain, sore dry eyes, a heat rash or chicken pox. They can help diagnose and offer treatment there and then to help with your problem. They often have a private consultation room if you need to speak in confidence. They can also suggest when to seek a doctor’s attention.
They are your first port of call for medication inquiries – how much, how often, side effects.
Most prescriptions are sent electronically to a pharmacy of your choosing. If you have repeat prescriptions, your allocated pharmacy may be able to help you order these when you are next due.
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