Shortage of doctors prompts NHS 24 crisis tactics

PATIENTS telephoning their GP will be diverted to a call centre under controversial plans to tackle Scotland’s shortage of doctors.

Patients could be forced to rely on an NHS 24 operator to make a diagnosis. Picture: Alamy
Patients could be forced to rely on an NHS 24 operator to make a diagnosis. Picture: Alamy
Patients could be forced to rely on an NHS 24 operator to make a diagnosis. Picture: Alamy

Phone calls from patients to their local doctor would be re-routed to NHS 24, the medical helpline that normally deals with patients out of hours under proposals being discussed by NHS officials and doctors’ leaders – as a shortage of GPs threatens to throw the health service into crisis.

Patients calling their GP for an appointment would be ­diverted to a call handler or a nurse on the helpline who would decide how the medical problem should be treated.

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The hotline staff would ­decide if the patient needed to hospital; should see a doctor or could be left at home with over the counter medicine.

The plan represents a ­fundamental change to the way patients calling their ­family doctor are dealt with.

Patients groups and opposition parties last night reacted with fury to the move.

But NHS managers and GP leaders are faced with having to avert a looming crisis because of a shortage of doctors.

Margaret Watt, chairman of the Scotland Patients Association said: “This proposal would change the way the NHS is run during the day and is another example of services being taken away.

“Clearly what we need is more GPs. Experienced GPs are experts in picking up problems. This compromises ­patient care. NHS 24 should stick to being an out-of-hours service, not pick up the slack during the day.”

The move has been ­proposed as a solution to the growing shortage of GP appointments during the day.

Last week it emerged that GPs are facing the biggest workforce shortage of a generation, and that surgeries are turning new patients away.

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NHS 24 has proposed the move precisely because the shortage is impacting on its own service, leading to more and more patients calling in the evening and weekends.

A paper written by NHS 24 medical director Professor George Crooks states: “Where patients cannot access an ­appointment within a time frame that they believe is necessary to meet their clinical needs [that] can result in ­contact with NHS 24 in the out of hours period.

“It has been known for some time that in certain parts of the country and at certain times of the week that there is significant pressure on GP ­appointments. There are a number of reasons for this ­including the availability of ­accredited GP’s.

“NHS 24 is in discussion with the BMA to determine what if anything it can do to support general practice during the in hours period.”

The plans are at an early stage, with little detail so far. But the move is likely to mean patients calling for an appointment at busy times do not get reach their surgery, but would be re-routed to NHS 24.

A BMA spokeswomen said: “There is growing pressure on GP services across Scotland and we have to find ways to assist practices to manage the workload. “However, it is important that practices can prioritise the demand themselves to fit the pressures from their population on each day. Practices will first prioritise ­patients who need urgent ­attention. We would be happy to hear any suggestions from NHS 24 if they think they can help support GP practices across Scotland.”

But Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “It will be deeply annoying for people trying to get in touch with their local GP to be bounced to NHS 24.

“This will result in the ­diverting of a high number of calls, and NHS 24 will need to boost its resources to cope.”

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“It’s a far from satisfactory situation, and will do nothing to encourage confidence among patients in their GP.”

Last night NHS 24 declined to comment.