Viewpoint: Dr Maureen Baker: Substantial investment and many more GPs needed

Waiting times for a GP appointment are now the topic of national debate - and will undoubtedly be a key battleground for the political parties in the run-up to the general election.

Dr Baker: 'It is vital that our patients can see a GP when they need to.'
Dr Baker: 'It is vital that our patients can see a GP when they need to.'

While reducing waiting times for a GP appointment must be a priority for politicians and the incoming government, this must not be used as a ‘trade off’ or come at the expense of other GP services, particularly continuity of care for patients with chronic and long-term conditions.

Our report, Patient access to general practice: ideas and challenges from the front line, looks at the five main drivers for improving access to general practice for our patients.

These include bringing practices together in ‘federations’ in order to offer extended opening hours, and harnessing the potential of technology such as smart phone apps and web-based consultations.

The report also provides case studies of GP practices that have improved access without compromising patient safety or the quality of care.

Improving access for our patients out of hours must also be a priority

It is vital that policy initiatives aimed at increasing or enhancing access to general practice focus on both those patients who want to prioritise speed and the growing number of people who would benefit from greater continuity of care with their GP.

We also need to ensure that, given the current ‘burst’ of initiatives in this area, projects are properly evaluated and evidence is gathered and published on what has been shown to work in some areas and what has not.

Improving access for our patients out of hours must also be a priority.

But another new College publication, The Future of GP Out of Hours Care,  shows that some GPs are facing battles of ‘David v Goliath’ proportions as they try to compete with larger commercial organisations to take back responsibility for managing local services.

Our report calls for practices to be allowed to opt back in if they wish, without having to go through that competitive process.

It also recommends that we have better data sharing across urgent and emergency care providers - and that GP training is increased by four years to allow trainees to gain more exposure to out of hours services.

Crucially, it shows that out-of-hours care, led or run by GPs, still accounts for around 59% of all out of hours services in the UK – not that this fact is ever mentioned in scurrilous and morale-deflating press reports.

It infuriates me when, unjustly and for years now, hard-working GPs across the UK have been blamed for turning our backs on our patients out of hours.

Take this recent winter, for example, I know that many GPs and their teams were working flat out to deliver care to patients, in and out of hours, throughout the holiday season. Yet all we saw in the papers were lazy, inaccurate editorials about  GPs shirking our responsibilities

We need to stop blaming hard working GPs – and a GP contract established more than 10 years ago – for the woes currently besetting the entire NHS.

I hope that our report will help to set the record straight.

The RCGP Put patients first: Back general practice campaign continues to highlight the pressures that we face and the need for the 3Rs - recruit, retain and return - to ensure we have a flourishing GP workforce that can provide excellent patient care, whenever our patients need it.

It is vital that our patients can see a GP when they need to.

But, as both our reports demonstrate, turning political rhetoric into practical action will require substantial investment and many more GPs to ease the burden on all of us working in general practice.

* Dr Baker is RCGP chairwoman

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