PLATFORM: Dr Laurence Dorman
IT is my great privilege to serve as chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, representing more than 1500 of my dedicated colleagues who have worked tirelessly on the frontline of the pandemic.
The last 18 months have been extremely difficult for all of us across Northern Ireland and general practice has had to change dramatically in a very short space of time; so I am grateful to have this opportunity to be able to speak to you directly and explain why we have had to change our service and to ask for your support.
I know many of you have found recent changes difficult and some of you are struggling to get through to our surgeries on the telephone. Please know we hear your concerns, and we want you to receive the best care possible.
The main reason our services had to change, virtually overnight, was due to infection control measures, which are still necessary to keep the most clinically vulnerable people in our society safe. These infection control measures mean your consultation has to start by telephone, but where there is a clinical need to meet face to face, please be assured we will do this.
Starting your consultation by telephone is a safety measure, but we have also found that it allows GP practices to increase the number of patients we can help. This increase in our capacity is badly needed as we are experiencing a huge increase in demand for our services. Last week alone almost 200,000 patients received consultations from our surgery teams – 10 per cent of our population.
We know that in some cases, our patients are struggling to get through on the phones. I appreciate how frustrating this can be, especially when you or a loved one is unwell, but please understand this is because of the huge demand for our services. We welcome a recent investment of £1.7m from the Department of Health to help upgrade our telephone systems, however, this is only a fraction of the level of support we need. An extra phone line in our surgery will not help meet your needs if we do not have enough staff to answer it.
It is really important we have an honest conversation about what is possible with our current workforce. Years of underinvestment in community care has left general practice in a very difficult place. We badly need more GPs and, as highlighted by the chair of the health committee Colm Gildernew this week, the full rollout of the multidisciplinary team (MDT) model which will bring other healthcare professionals into our practice teams. This means our patients will have timely access to the healthcare professional best placed to manage their needs.
GPs are working harder than ever before, and it is genuinely hurtful and deeply demoralising for my colleagues to hear they are “closed” or not serving patients. This could not be further from the truth. Please trust us that we are doing all we can to keep our communities safe.
Simple things before contacting our surgeries can make a big difference to reducing the number of calls on our busy phone lines such as ordering scripts online or thinking of suitable alternative supports such as community pharmacy can help keep our phones free and ensure our staff are there for you when you need them.
Your family doctors will be here for you as we face toward the difficult winter months. We know it can be frustrating if you struggle to access our services, so please help us to help you.
:: Dr Laurence Dorman is Chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland.