RCGP demands support for GPs dealing with thousands of 'long COVID' patients

GPs need ‘quick and easy access’ to appropriate rehabilitation services in the community to help hundreds of thousands of patients with long-term COVID-19 symptoms, the RCGP has warned.

Long COVID symptoms include fatigue (Photo: Science Photo Library/Getty Images)
Long COVID symptoms include fatigue (Photo: Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

The college has also called for up-to-date guidance on the effects of ‘long COVID’ to ensure that family doctors can manage COVID-19 'in the most appropriate way' for patients.

Government data reveals that around 10% of people with mild coronavirus cases who were not admitted to hospital reported symptoms that lasted more than four weeks, including fatigue, muscle aches and headaches. A number of hospitalised cases also reported continuing symptoms for 8 or more weeks following discharge.

The government has set up an online COVID recovery programme, which GPs can use to direct patients to centres that will assess their needs and provide support.

Covid long clinics

However, a BBC Radio 4 investigation found that just 10 out of 86 CCGs who responded were offering these services - although a further 19 said they were planning or redesigning services.

This has left GP practices continuing to treat patients with long COVID, the RCGP said, as it called for the GP workforce to be given the 'capacity and resources’ it needed to continue its response to the pandemic.

Around 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms lasting for more than a month, according to King’s College London team behind the Covid Symptom Study app. It adds that as many as 60,000 people have been ill for more than three months.

Speaking at a House of Commons health and social care select committee meeting on 8 September, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted that long COVID clinics had been set up by the government in July, while GPs and other primary care professionals had been given 'the latest insight' to support patients.

Support for GPs

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall argued GPs needed further support to deal with patients presenting with long COVID. He said: ‘COVID-19 is a new virus and whilst we are rapidly learning about it, research is still necessary to help us properly understand recovery from the virus and its effects on long-term health.

‘These are symptoms that are similar to other post-viral syndromes and might well be related to COVID-19 but can also be signs of other conditions, so GPs will want to consider all possible causes before making a diagnosis, and any appropriate referral.

‘It’s vital that as our understanding of the virus improves, and research into how to treat it and its long-term effects emerges, that guidelines for GPs are rapidly developed so that we can treat and manage COVID-19 in the most appropriate way for patients. GPs also need quick and easy access to appropriate diagnostic tools and rehabilitation services in the community for our patients who have had COVID-19.’

Recent BMA polling found that 56% of GPs have seen patients in the last two weeks with symptoms that they believe to be long-term effects of COVID-19. Chair of the BMA’s GP committee for England Dr Richard Vautrey previously argued it was essential that 'sufficient capacity is in place to support and treat' patients suffering from long-term COVID symptoms.

COVID research 

A government spokesperson, said: ‘As we continue our fight against this global pandemic, we are constantly learning more about the impact of coronavirus, including on longer-term physical and mental health.

‘To support this we have committed £8.4m in funding to one of the world’s largest comprehensive research studies into the long-term health impacts of coronavirus on hospitalised patients. The secretary of state has also convened a roundtable meeting with researchers and clinicians to establish what more can be done to understand and mitigate the long-term health effects of COVID-19.

‘Guidance has already been provided to the NHS on long-term effects of COVID-19, including how this should inform personalised patient care plans. This guidance is constantly being updated as we learn more about the long-term impact of the virus.’

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