GPs handled three times more suspected COVID-19 cases than official data show

Suspected COVID-19 cases recorded by GPs during the pandemic outnumber cases confirmed by testing by around three to one, according to research that shows 'much of the COVID-19 epidemic is being handled in primary care'.

COVID-19 swab test (Photo: Paul Biris/Getty Images)
COVID-19 swab test (Photo: Paul Biris/Getty Images)

Data from GP practices also confirm higher rates of infection among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, according to research published in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP).

The RCGP said the figures showed the 'significant role' GPs and practice teams had played in tackling coronavirus and supporting patients during the pandemic - and warned that the figures underscored the need for rapid access to test results in primary care.

The college also called for urgent action to understand and tackle factors behind the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities.

COVID-19 cases

GP recording of suspected COVID-19 'follows the same distribution as the national data on test-positive cases, but with a three-fold greater volume, reflecting the large number of community cases', the BJGP study found.

Researchers said their findings showed that 'much of the COVID-19 epidemic is being managed in primary care' - highlighting that GP consultations could provide a powerful 'early warning system for detection and monitoring of new outbreaks of disease, which may follow the relaxation of lockdown restrictions'.

The reseachers also called for practices to be handed a role in supporting testing and contact tracing for COVID-19 - and for further research to unpick why BAME groups had been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Lead author Dr Sally Hull from Queen Mary University of London said: ‘Much of the COVID-19 epidemic is being managed in primary care, which has had to rapidly adjust to online consultations.

COVID-19 testing

'We need timely reporting of COVID-19 test results to practices, and diagnostic information from NHS 111, so that practices can provide continuing care to patients with more severe episodes.

'It’s going to be very important how GPs record and manage cases in their community, as this can provide an early warning system if cases are rising again in an area and if we’re about to see a second wave of infection.’

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'This data shows the significant role GPs and our teams have played in tackling COVID-19 and delivering care to patients during the pandemic – and how the virus has impacted on all parts of the health and care services.'

The RCGP chair reiterated the message that practices have been 'open throughout the pandemic' - with GPs and practice teams 'continuing to deliver the vast majority of NHS patient care to patients with both COVID and non-COVID conditions'.

Professor Marshall added: 'This research is mostly looking at "suspected" cases of COVID-19, because of the lack of testing at a community level throughout the pandemic, particularly towards the start.

'To ensure we have a good understanding of the virus at a community level and help us to give patients the care they need, it is essential that GPs have rapid access to testing results for patients – and that as newer, quicker tests for COVID-19 are available, GPs and our teams have access to them when necessary and appropriate.'

The college chair said he had written to the government to call for urgent action to understand and address the high prevalence of suspected COVID-19 in patients from BAME groups - and to demand an urgent update on 'what progress has been made in developing risk assessment tools for BAME staff across the NHS to ensure they are safe to work and feel confident in doing so'.

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