Access to GP services

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2021 Virtual Retired Members Conference
22 June 2021

This conference notes with concern the findings of the survey carried out in December 2020 by the Birmingham UNISON Retired Members Section, that during the pandemic it has been increasingly difficult to access GP services. As the survey has indicated, there is a major problem with the more vulnerable elderly section of society – where health issues will generally be more urgent – accessing GP services, leading to frustration and fears that the delays being encountered could affect people’s health.

Of the 90 members who took part in the survey, 52 % said they had had difficulty in getting an appointment. While most had to wait around a week to get an appointment, some respondents had to wait longer than a month. Only 10 % of respondents had face to face consultations with their GP, the remainder having phone or virtual consultations only.

There is increasing evidence that this is a nationwide problem, with the Royal College of GPs saying they now only have face to face consultations with 7 out of every 100 patients. Meanwhile the Healthwatch report, GP Access During Covid-19 – Review of evidence April 2019 – 2020, reported a major shift in which the way elderly and vulnerable are being treated. Problems include:

· Telephone triages, normally being carried out by receptionist staff, with on average up to 3 contacts to get access to a GP

· Delays in getting appointments, with long telephone queues

· Limited face to face consultations, while home visits have been virtually non-existent

· An assumption by GPs that the elderly age group and those on low incomes have digital or telephone access

· Telephone or digital consultations discriminate against people with hearing and sensory difficulties or those with advancing dementia, and for those where English is not their first language

· Difficulties with access to GPs is likely to continue given the huge back-log of non-Covid health care.

While recognising the operational difficulties that GP Practices have faced during the pandemic, the elderly age group are now most likely to be fully vaccinated, as GP Practice staff will be too, so the previous concerns around social distancing are beginning to recede, opening the opportunity for the return of face to face consultation.

This conference notes its concern that the pandemic is being used to make virtual consultation the ‘new normal’, and shares the view of many bodies such as the British Medical Association that new online services are letting the private sector skim off healthier patients with short-term care needs, while leaving other parts of the NHS – funded by the taxpayer – with a heavier financial burden, looking after the more vulnerable with long-term health needs.

This conference therefore:

a)calls upon the National Retired Members Committee to work with those campaigning for improved access to GPs and medical services, including Healthwatch England, National Voices, the Patients Association, the National Pensioners Convention and Age UK.