Healthwatch England has urged NHS England to formally review access to general practice services after tens of thousands struggled to book appointments during the pandemic.
GPs did not communicated changes to services because of Covid-19 well and the switch from face-to-face to remote consultations had not ‘met everyone’s needs’, analysis from the independent health and social care watchdog found.
By December 2020, around 75% of people who contacted Healthwatch said they had a negative experience of accessing general practice services, which is up 20% on the same point in 2019, the report GP access during Covid-19, released yesterday, highlighted.
Healthwatch England analysed the experiences of almost 200,000 people shared between April 2019 and December 2020. It also examined access to services before the pandemic.
Of 1,190 pantients in England who were polled and had booked an appointment since March 2020, 75% had booked via telephone, with 18% and 5% by internet and in person, it found.
The report said that while telephone appointments are convenient for many patients, concerns over missed diagnoses were ‘exacerbated for disabled people, people with long-term health conditions, people without access to the internet and for anyone whose first language is not English’.
It added: ‘This shift has happened extremely quickly, and there is little evidence that people have been consulted about how they view these changes.’
Healthwatch also found an increase in reports of problems contacting GP surgeries via phone since September 2020. It said that patients reported waiting in long queues, having to call back throughout the day, or finding the line ‘continuously engaged’.
Chair of Healthwatch England Sir Robert Francis said: ‘GPs are a vital first port of call for people who need care; they are the main ‘gatekeeper’ to other services. If people cannot get through to a GP, not only can their health and wellbeing be put at risk.
‘The shift to remote care during the pandemic has understandably happened extremely quickly, but there is little evidence that people have been consulted about how they view these changes.’
He added: ‘We urge NHS England to undertake a formal review of GP access arrangements to make sure it is working for everyone.’
The report also called on NHS England to support GP practices to consider how different patients may have different communication needs, and to help them to adapt accordingly.
Responding to the report, Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC chair at the BMA, said general practice had been hamstrung by a lack of resources and funding.
‘We understand that the pandemic has been difficult for many of our patients – it has for us too – but it’s important to remember the context practices are currently operating in; a once-in-a-generation health crisis with minimal Government support.
‘Government and NHS leadership must learn from this, to ensure services are better prepared for the future, and that GPs are never left again without the resources and funding they need.’
Dr Vautrey added: ‘We’re acutely aware that remote appointments don’t work for everyone, as this report highlights, but it’s important to dispel the myth that patients without access to the internet have in some way been abandoned and simply cannot access their GP.’
There is an urgent need to recruit and retain more staff in general practice to help improve access, Dr Vautrey said.
A version of this story was published by Nursing in Practice’s sister title Management in Practice.