General practice should be a key part of winter planning

Primary care has a key role to play in helping the NHS cope with winter demand - but it is mostly sidelined while funding is pumped into hospitals. Additional resources for GPs could help tackle the problem, says Dr Jonathan Griffiths.

Dr Jonathan Griffiths
Dr Jonathan Griffiths

Last week the UK was gripped in the middle of a heatwave, nevertheless this week I will be attending a meeting to discuss winter planning.

This is entirely appropriate of course, and too many times in previous years winter has seemed to arrive unexpectedly with a flurry of activity to shore up A&E and try to hit the four-hour A&E target. I think everyone recognises the need to deal with winter as business as usual, with constant planning around how we manage flow through the system.

I have the pleasure of being the vice chair of our A&E delivery board, so such discussions and plans are now very familiar to me. I always approach these meetings and conversations, however, with a slightly heavy heart.

The reason is not because I don’t recognise the importance of the A&E target (it is a measure of quality and good indicator of how ‘hot’ your system is running amongst other things), but because of the inevitable focus it brings to just one part of the wider system.

No matter how much we might talk about how the four-hour target is not just about A&E, we usually end up talking about hospitals. More than that, we usually end up putting the bulk of any additional money into the hospital.

Let me be clear. This is not about criticising the hospital. I think they are doing a great job under difficult circumstances, and if I were them I would also want to invest more money into A&E staff, A&E buildings, hospital beds and ward staff.

If you are dealing with patients queueing in your waiting rooms, filling your cubicles, filling your corridors, stuck on your wards, what would you do? Locally we know that our emergency department is not big enough. We need capital to sort this (and are struggling to find it at the moment). We also need more staff, particularly for key anti-social shifts (and that’s not cheap).

Primary care is sidelined

I think we continue to miss a trick, though. We continue to sideline primary care and community services. Social care has been brought into the fold through the Better Care Fund and the focus on Delayed Transfers of Care, and that is a very good thing, but primary and community are not round the table (at least not enough to make an impact yet).

This is a mistake. Primary care has so much to offer, and if we neglect it we do so at our peril. I would advocate additional resourcing of GPs in their practices to help tackle the whole problem.

Let us remember that around 90% of all NHS contacts take place in primary care (for less than 10% of the budget). As a GP I see people with all manner of problems with all manner of degrees of urgency. Although I am not really an ‘emergency service’ I do deal with many things that otherwise would find themselves presented at the emergency department. 

If you decrease my capacity in general practice, then people will inevitably drift into A&E. There are also plenty of people pitching up at A&E with primary care problems. Locally we have struggled to ‘stream’ these people to a GP. Our local ambulance service reminds us at every A&E Delivery Board that we have no local AVS scheme (acute visiting service) and that paramedics are then faced with little option other than conveying to hospital.

If you ask A&E, they would like GPs to do more to keep people away from them (a recent HealthWatch survey in our A&E suggested that a number of people were there because they felt they couldn’t get an appointment with their GP). If you ask the paramedics, they would like to be able to ring the GP and get them to visit the patient asap to avoid taking them to hospital. If you ask the GPs, well, you will get a range of responses.

GPs need more resources

The problem is that GPs are not just sat there waiting for more work, twiddling their thumbs with their feet up. They are not on the golf course during their hours-long lunch breaks. GPs are busy and can barely lift up their heads enough from their work to consider how they might contribute to the urgent care issues around them.

They have no more capacity to take on extra visiting of patients who have rung 999 (or 111) and they are delivering the best access they can. GPs are not trying to do a bad job, and they are not trying to put up barriers to their patients. They are still doing an excellent job and providing quality care for huge numbers of patients every day (significantly more than the local A&E will be, albeit dealing with patients who are usually less unwell).

All of this needs to be taken seriously. General practice needs resourcing properly if it is to work effectively, and we know that an effective general practice is a wonderful thing. Fail to do this, and we will fail the NHS.

I wonder how much talk there will be at my winter planning meeting about GPs and community services? My fear is that any talk that there is will be around how GPs can help with the four-hour target, which is missing the point slightly. GPs need resourcing in order to keep the whole of the NHS going. They need resourcing to keep GPs doing what they do best – working as expert generalists in the community, providing continuity of care close to home in a remarkably efficient way.

Let’s acknowledge the importance of primary care, and put our money where it needs to be spent.

  • Dr Jonathan Griffiths is a GP in Winsford, Cheshire and clinical chair of NHS Vale Royal CCG. This article was first published on his blog, which you can find here.

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