Millions of patients 'avoiding calls to GP' during COVID-19 pandemic

Millions of patients could be putting their long-term health at risk by avoiding calls to their GP during the coronavirus pandemic, NHS leaders have warned.

Patients reluctant to call GP (Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images)
Patients reluctant to call GP (Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images)

Four in 10 people are not seeking help from their GP because they are afraid to be a burden on the NHS during the pandemic, polling by NHS England reveals.

The findings - from a survey of 1,000 people - are the latest in a wave of evidence that fewer people are seeking care for illnesses other than those related to coronavirus during the pandemic.

GPonline reported on 20 April that data collected by the RCGP showed a 25% reduction in routine clinical activity in general practice - and figures from Public Health England (PHE) and the British Heart Foundation show that A&E attendances overall and patients going to hospital for heart attacks are down 50%.

COVID-19 deaths

Figures from the Office for National Statistics on deaths in England and Wales, meanwhile, show that while thousands of patients have died from COVID-19, deaths not linked to the virus are also above the five-year average.

Warnings that patients' reluctance to come forward could put them at risk come as leading charities warned that suspension of some routine GP services during the pandemic could also lead to a 'future crisis' if control of conditions such as asthma and COPD deteriorate.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: 'While NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to deal with coronavirus they have also worked hard to ensure that patients who don’t have COVID-19 can safely access essential services.

'So whether you or a loved one have the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, are a parent worried about their child or have concerns about conditions such as cancer you should seek help in the way you always would. Ignoring problems can have serious consequences - now or in the future.'

NHS remains open

Professor Carrie MacEwen, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said: 'We are very concerned that patients may not be accessing the NHS for care because they either don’t want to be a burden or because they are fearful about catching the virus.

'Everyone should know that the NHS is still open for business and it is vitally important that if people have serious conditions or concerns they seek help. This campaign is an important step in ensuring that people are encouraged to get the care they need when they need it.'

GPs have been advised to continue to refer patients to hospital as normal during the pandemic, despite the suspension of all non-urgent procedures in secondary care from mid-April.

But GP practices In England have been told they can suspend many routine services during the pandemic, while routine care has not been stopped in Wales and Scotland.

Routine NHS care

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have warned practices against going too far with reducing routine care - urging GPs to prioritise digital asthma and lung disease reviews to prevent a 'future crisis' for people with respiratory conditions, warning this could coincide with a potential second peak of COVID-19 infection and the winter flu season.

The charities said they understood the need 'to review GP requirements and maintain flexible contractual arrangements during this crisis', but warned that suspension of all annual reviews may weaken the NHS’s future resilience.'

GPs including NHS England director of primary care Dr Nikita Kanani have been publicising the message that general practice remains 'open' despite a dramatic reduction in face-to-face appointments as practices respond to the pandemic.

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