Should GPs refuse to squeeze in ‘extras’ at the end of surgery?
Dr David Coleman and Dr Matthew Piccaver debate the issue
Being any kind of healthcare professional is hard work and dealing with the misery and suffering of others soon takes its toll. Other specialties solve this problem by throwing up walls – we’ve probably all received the sort of letter that implies our patient is the wrong kind of ill.
General practice isn’t able to do this. While we relish the ‘jack of all trades’ role, our boundaries now seem limitless. We are expected to know everything about everything, do everything for everyone, and all day, all night, all week, all year, if the Government gets its way. We’re expected to plough through the list with a smile, and view each patient as if he or she was the first of the day.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I admit I regularly work 12 to 16 hours a day. We’re somehow exempt from the Working Time Directive, but not from the consequences of fatigue. Reception will add ‘just one more’, and our desire to be a ‘good doctor’ will frequently lead to that patient being seen. Like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, at some point we are going to explode. A review of working time regulations by Durham University in 2012 found that long hours increased the risk of error, and of accidents on the drive home.1 It is not uncommon for me to not recall my journey home, especially after an out-of- hours shift, and working when tired the risk of clinical error is likely to increase.
Consultation rates are climbing. It is estimated that there are 340 million GP consultations per year in England alone.2 Examples in Pulse of two doctors caring for 10,000 patients, and calls for practice shutdowns at times of extreme stress only serve to emphasise the problem.3
Ever met a doctor that isn’t tired? No, me neither. We might think we’re doing our patients a service, but we aren’t. Just one more ‘wafer-thin’ patient to squeeze in. One more chance to make a mistake. I went into this career to help people, not to hurt them. Perhaps it’s time we stopped offering ‘extras’.
Dr Matthew Piccaver is a GP in Cambridge.
When NHS England contacted CCGs last May about priorities from the Urgent and Emergency Care Review, it was no surprise to see access to general practice top the list: ‘No patient should have to attend A&E because they could not get a GP appointment.’ We all want to offer the best care. But an increasing number of obstacles are making it difficult.
Popular consensus suggests patient demand is the major issue. The same was true when Dr David Mechanic surveyed almost 1,000 GPs in 1966.4
Nearly 50 years on, discussions about demand still feature criticism of society’s inability to self-care. In 1976, Dr Julian Tudor Hart urged us to ‘accept that input is a variable … we can influence only slowly, and with great care to avoid damage to our work’.5 So if we can’t reduce demand for urgent appointments, should we set a limit and divert additional requests to another struggling service? I don’t believe this is the answer.
The Friday rush of late requests frustrates me as much as the next GP, but should we not find the time to assess them on the phone rather than turn them away? I typically invite up to one-third of these requests for an urgent appointment. I don’t see these patients ‘abusing the system’; I see frightened parents, concerned spouses, isolated elderly patients who can only come when their neighbour returns from work.
Of course, the ‘new deal’ looks likely to render this debate redundant. The health secretary’s speech in June certainly didn’t hint towards a Rooseveltian intervention to save primary care. For GPs, continuing to do more with less is a recipe for disillusionment and disaster and with insufficient workforce planning to support it, seven-day working will be the death knell for general practice as we know it.
And who will see the extras then?
Dr David Coleman is a GP in Conisbrough, South Yorkshire.
1 Morrow G, Burford B, Carter M et al. The Impact of the Working Time Regulations on Medical Education and Training: Literature Review. Durham University, 2012. tinyurl.com/durhamoverwork
4 Mechanic D. General Practice in England and Wales: Results from a Survey of a National Sample of General Practitioners. Medical Care 1968; Vol. 6, No. 3:245-260
5 Hart JT. General-practice workload, needs, and resources in the National Health Service. J R Coll Gen Pract. 1976 Dec; 26(173):885-892