A FAMILIAR scene. It’s 8am, the doctors surgery has just opened, and you’re trying to get an appointment. You spend an hour trying to get through, only to be told that they cannot fit you in until three days time.
The ‘8am scramble’ has been a growing problem for surgeries up and down the country for some time, as patient lists grow, and those needing help are getting older.
But at one surgery in Swadlincote, staff have introduced a new measure to try to make life better for both healthcare staff and the people they look after – and so far, it seems to be working.
Since the telephone triage system began at Swadlincote Surgery, the amount of people booking emergency appointments has plummeted, and staff have been freed up to see the people who really need help.
“Demand is shooting up, and investment is level at best, which meant we had to look at how to manage that.
“We really couldn’t increase capacity, but we could look at how we managed that demand.
“We looked at what patients need, rather than what they want, and we have had a very positive feedback,” said Sarah Longland, practice manager at the Darklands Road site.
Under the new system, patients can call the surgery at any time of day and speak to a duty doctor or practitioner who deals with their problem.
If the patient needs an appointment, they can be booked in later that day, but if they would be best treated another way, they can be advised accordingly.
The change in just six short weeks has been considerable.
“On the worst day, 23 per cent of patients were referred for appointments. It shows that two-thirds of the problems people come to us with can be dealt with in a better way,” Mrs Longland said.
Patients have been overwhelmingly positive about the new system, which they said had made the process ‘more streamlined’.
John Powell, chairman of the surgery’s patient participation group, told the Mail that feedback had been very positive indeed.
Mr Powell, who has used the surgery for 47 years, said: “If you can ring in and someone can discuss things with you it is better.
“It’s streamlining the process and making sure that there is somebody to deal with their problem.”
Swadlincote Surgery is not alone in struggling with demand, but with a patient roll topping 13,800, it is clear that it was an issue which had to be addressed.
Pressure has been building on surgeries for some time, as areas grow in size and the population ages.
Increasing demand is not matched by an increase in funding, leaving staff stretched and patients feeling as if they get a raw deal.
Couple this with the fact that general practice in the NHS is a political hot potato, and it brings about a sector which is fraught with challenges.
Politicians have recently suggested a raft of changes for surgeries, including longer opening hours, which have not been well-received by staff.
Dr James Bettridge, who is a registrar at the surgery, told the Mail he thought the pressures facing him and his colleagues were multifaceted.
“The NHS is almost becoming a victim of its own success. Patients are living longer and they have more complex health needs. They are on more tablets, and they have to be balanced to stop them reacting.
“I there is also a lot more information for patients to access on the internet, which can be concerning, but the doctors is not always the right place to be,” said the doctor, who is due to join the surgery fully in August.
Another issue comes down to attitudes from above, as hospital trusts encourage people to use their GPs rather than heading straight for A&E.
Mrs Longland argued that a lot could be done by GPs, but more funding was necessary.
“We are in probably the biggest period of change general practice has ever seen and we have a wider range of pressures, but there are no new surgeries springing up.
“We’re at a critical point in general practice and if something doesn’t give. we will have patients queuing out of the doors. That will be the reality,” she added.
For the moment, the crisis has been averted at Swadlincote, but as South Derbyshire is the fastest-growing district in the county, it could be only a matter of time until this surgery – and others in the area – are facing challenges once again.