GPs stretched by record appointment numbers
NHS England data has shown that 28 million GP appointments were booked in March 2021. These figures are amongst the highest ever recorded.
This may seem surprising on the face of it. The pandemic, whilst still present, is slowly being brought under control and the vaccination programme in England continues to administer amongst the highest volume of doses in the world. So, why the increase in demand on GP services?
15% reduction in cancer referrals
There are potentially several reasons. The number of patients who were referred by GPs for urgent cancer check-ups reduced by 15% in 2020/21, in comparison to 2019/20. It would not be realistic to suggest that 15% fewer people had cancer symptoms year on year.
The government messaging during the pandemic was “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. The figures suggest that many patients stayed away from their GP, even when they had concerning symptoms. Perhaps they feared they would add a burden to an already overstretched NHS. Others may have been fearful of attending their GP surgery or hospitals at a time when coronavirus transmission was rife.
It’s clear that in cases involving cancer, the earlier the problem is dealt with, the more likely an individual is to have a positive outcome.
Hidden wave of patients
The Health Foundation data shows that individuals who stayed away from primary care in the past year, for whatever reason, are now presenting. With patients now reporting problems in record numbers (and potentially later than they otherwise would have), the burden on primary care and hospitals increases.
Dr Dean Eggitt, from Doncaster, told the BBC that it is not necessarily the patients that he now sees which are his greatest concern. Dr Eggitt stated that he worried most about the “hidden wave of patients who don’t get through”.
The British Medical Association has warned that the GP workforce, including non-clinical staff, is simply not growing fast enough to meet current or future demand. Many will be able to relate to the frustration of attempting to make a GP appointment, only to be met with a distinct lack of appointments and inconvenient hold time.
We are now faced with a situation where record numbers of patients are presenting, combined with a workforce of GPs which is not sufficiently equipped to meet demand.
The logical assumption to reach would be that as the pandemic eases, the pressure on the NHS would reduce. But the reality may prove to be very different.
Chris Marsden is a Solicitor within Fletchers’ Medical Negligence Serious Injury Team.