Widespread media attention of the coronavirus outbreak in China is likely to create more demand for GP appointments in the UK due to symptomatic patients suspecting they have become infected, leading primary care experts have suggested.
In an article co-authored by RCGP president Professor Amanda Howe, the group of experts warned the rapidly developing situation could cause increased anxiety among members of the public.
The group also pointed out that media and public interest in the new form of coronavirus, which has been traced back to Wuhan in China, and the extent of international travel means, ‘confirmed cases in the UK may yet be seen’.
Writing in the BJGP Open, the authors pointed out that Public Health England has advised any person coughing, feeling short of breath, or experiencing fever to seek medical attention if they have recently travelled to Wuhan.
To date official figures suggest more than 4,500 cases of the virus, causing 130 deaths. It has spread to 16 countries and UK officials have tested more than 30 people for ‘2019-nCoV’ but all have come back negative.
However, the experts said the number of suspected cases is expected to rise.
They added: ‘It is reasonable to expect that the widespread attention will impact on the demand for appointments in GP practices in coming weeks, as well as anxiety for members of the public’.
The experts pointed to interim guidance from Public Health England (PHE) issued last week, which advises GPs to isolate any unwell patient with relevant travel history who turns up at the practice.
‘As the “front door” of the health system, primary care professionals should be involved in planning and action for health emergency risk management,’ they said.
Last week, extra airport screening measures were put in place at Heathrow, but British Airways has now suspended all direct flights to and from mainland China.
The UK Government has also announced plans to fly 200 British citizens out of Wuhan.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, said it is monitoring the situation but the current threat to the UK is considered low, and NHS England and PHE are assuring patients that there are robust arrangements in place.
He said: ‘Patients should not be alarmed as it is still more likely that anyone with flu-like symptoms will have the flu.
‘The most important thing is that any patient who thinks they may have symptoms should not try to attend a GP appointment or hospital emergency departments in person.’
He added: ‘We advise them to let the GP receptionist know if they have recently travelled to Wuhan, China before a decision is taken by the GP as to where the patient will be seen.’