Minimising risk as a GP locum

Working in unfamiliar surroundings means locum GPs need to take extra steps to mitigate risks and ensure patient safety is not compromised, says Dr Naeem Nazem from the MDDUS.

Ensure you are familiar with the practice's computer system (Photo: iStock)

The role of a GP locum can be busy, challenging and extremely rewarding. Locums often have greater autonomy over the extent and nature of their work and the variety of working in different practices can help develop their skills over a broad range of clinical areas.

However, working in unfamiliar surroundings mean locum GPs can face additional challenges that must be overcome. By taking extra steps and proper risk management, locums can greatly mitigate these risks to ensure patient safety is not compromised.

Work within competence

It’s fair to say that most locum GPs would have worked in posts that were quite different to the way that they had been described.

It may be that the systems in use are antiquated, or the support staff are lacking. Therefore, locum GPs are reminded to work within their own competence and should not feel pressurised into taking on an unmanageable volume of work or tasks they feel are beyond their expertise and may affect patient safety.

Particular care should be taken in relation to signing repeat prescriptions. It is not unusual for a locum GP to find they are handed a large pile of repeat prescriptions to sign at the end of a session. However, all doctors are reminded of the GMC’s guidance on safe prescribing, which highlights that each doctor is individually responsible for every prescription they issue.

Locum GPs should therefore ensure they have sufficient knowledge regarding a patient’s medical history before signing any prescription, irrespective of whether it is a new or repeat medication.

Patient records

Locums are generally more aware of the need to maintain detailed patient records, especially as they may only see a patient on one occasion. Good notes are essential to ensure an appropriate handover of patients and to minimise the risks of adverse events.

Not only does a good medical entry benefit the patient, it can also provide GPs with a robust foundation in defending themselves against any subsequent complaint or claim.

Record keeping should always be comprehensive and contemporaneous. It is essential that all relevant information is recorded in the medical records as this may be the only source of information for the next doctor involved in the patient’s care. 

Be sure to include details of any follow-up actions such as further investigations or treatment that may be required. MDDUS has encountered cases where patients have presented to locum doctors with new symptoms or clinical signs which have not been effectively documented or handed over. As a consequence, there has often been a considerable delay in the investigation or treatment of serious medical conditions. 

In order to minimise these risks, locum GPs are always recommended to double check any relevant medical information with their patients and document these discussions within their medical entry.

Safe patient handover

Poor communication during handovers is a common factor in clinical negligence and regulatory actions encountered at MDDUS. Crucial information can be missed in a busy setting and mistakes can happen in any situation that involves a handover.

This can lead to delayed and incorrect diagnoses, repeated investigations and incorrect treatment. The risks may be all the more apparent to locum GPs who often find themselves on the receiving end of limited handovers.

The very nature of their role means that locums often find they have only a brief involvement in a patient’s overall medical care. It is therefore imperative that they communicate their management and thought-process effectively to permanent medical staff.

An effective and accurate handover protects the patient, ensures continuity of care and allows GPs to prioritise workload according to clinical need. Time should be taken with handovers and patients expect doctors to share relevant information effectively, so that their care is properly coordinated and managed.

Transfer of information and IT support

Locums often find they are brought into a practice at a particularly busy or chaotic time. In such circumstances, it is easy and understandable for them to feel the need to 'get stuck in' immediately.

However, it is important to be able to appropriately review, record and process information held on medical computer systems and locum GPs should insist that they are provided with sufficient knowledge and training on any computer system used by a practice.

Practices also have a responsibility to ensure locums are safely inducted into the service. They should create and maintain an information pack, containing all the necessary information and guidelines to enable a locum doctor to work safely and effectively.

Relevant documents to include in the information pack include patient referral protocols, practice prescribing formularies as well as practice management guidelines.

In terms of access to the computer system, a unique login and password should be set up for the locum doctor to access all electronic patient records. This will ensure that an audit trail of their records is available should the need arise.

All emergency equipment should be pointed out during an introductory walk-round of the practice, with instructions for use of equipment and sterilisation procedures readily available.

Ensure you have appropriate indemnity

Locum GPs should also make sure their medical defence organisation is aware of the amount of locum work that they do, and the type of work this involves, to ensure that they have the adequate level of indemnity in place. Even when you try to minimise risks, things still go wrong, so it is important to make sure that you are covered.

  • Dr Naeem Nazem is a medical adviser at MDDUS

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