Leader comment: Protection of GPs is harming patients

If a GP surgery is under so much pressure that patients have to wait for weeks to get an appointment with a doctor, the situation is only going to get worse if the number of patients registered at the practice is not controlled.

Securing an appointment to see a GP can feel like a battle against the odds.
Securing an appointment to see a GP can feel like a battle against the odds.

In that respect, it makes sense for surgeries to stop taking new patients, if they are already operating at full capacity. This is happening in Lothian, where over 40 per cent of practices are restricting the entry of new patients, up 17 per cent on last year’s figure. Restriction is necessary, but is alarming that the problem is becoming acute.

For the patient, there will be inconvenience before a doctor can be consulted at a different practice or at a hospital. But it also reinforces a broader point about accessing health care: the feeling that it is being made ever-harder for a member of the public to see a doctor.

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Much of this appears to be deliberate, to take the strain off doctors who are under pressure. Receptionists often come over as hostile, or at best, over-protective, as they enquire about the nature of the patient’s problem, in an attempt to evaluate the need for a consultation. And even if an appointment is secured, it can involve waiting for longer then two weeks. At some practices, it is necessary to call in first thing each morning to secure an eventual appointment. Meanwhile, patients are being urged to consult pharmacists first, to see if the problem can be treated without involving a doctor.

These factors already make it as difficult as possible to see a doctor. An increase in the number of restricted or closed lists will definitely help to take the strain off doctors, but it’s a dangerous strategy. When a patient faces a barrier, it is easier to reach the conclusion that getting an appointment is more hassle than it will be worth. That is not an outlook any patient should have to contemplate.

Preventative care is the key to better health, and we are given regular encouragement by Scottish Government and charity campaigns to get checked for certain conditions, and to consult our GP if in doubt. But at the same time as being pointed in the GP’s direction, we are being turned away as we try to get in.

Without timely detection, an illness can become far more serious, and far more expensive to treat.

Our GPs should not be over-worked, but the policy of restricting registration needs very careful management. There is a balance to be achieved, and if next year’s statistics follow this year’s trend, a worrying spike will have become a crisis.