Getting a doctor’s appointment is becoming more and more of a challenge. Whether it means explaining in detail to a non-qualified receptionist who triages requests, or having to grapple with an inflexible online booking system, or having to join a phone queue at 8am exactly, or even filling in an online form just to be put in another triage queue – the processes seem designed to make you think it’s not worth it. They are particularly trying for anyone who is elderly, sick or in pain, or who has a chronic medical condition, and these, after all, take up a large proportion of appointments.
During the pandemic we got used to phone and video consultations, but we all knew these were not the most effective way to make a diagnosis, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that serious conditions were missed. It may still make sense for a doctor to hold an initial remote conversation, but only if an in-person appointment can be made speedily if needed.
But the delays in getting appointments is very real. Years ago no-one would have been offered a GP appointment in two weeks’ time for a new condition, and yet that is what is happening now.
Ed Davey is announcing plans to give us all the legal right to see a GP within a week (or 24 hours if urgent). It is certainly an indicator of the stresses within the NHS if a week’s delay is seen as an improvement. He has unearthed data which shows that 25% of people in some areas have to wait over two weeks for an appointment. This is in the context of the two week target for suspected cancer cases to be seen by a specialist, where the clock only starts once someone has actually seen their GP. That wait could be doubled if they can’t get a GP appointment immediately.
The proposal is that this right would be enshrined in law, thus putting a duty on the Government to ensure that it happens. Of course, it can only be achieved if the recruitment and retention of GPs is improved, and that requires action at the highest level.
So watch out for the announcement in Ed’s major speech at the weekend – designed to replace the missed Conference speech. Ahead of that he has said:
Far too many people are struggling to get a GP appointment when they need one, leaving them waiting anxiously for the care they deserve.
This can lead to missed or delayed diagnoses, or people turning in desperation to our overstretched A&E departments instead.
Patients are suffering from years of neglect under the Conservatives, who have repeatedly broken their promise to recruit more GPs.
Liberal Democrats would guarantee people a right to a GP appointment within one week, or within 24 hours if they are in urgent need. This would reduce pressure on our hospitals and paramedics, saving crucial time and money elsewhere in the NHS.
* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.