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Prominent MP criticises ‘frustrating and ineffective’ GP appointment systems

A former challenger for Labour leader has publicly criticised GP practices’ systems of allocating appointments to patients, calling them ‘frustrating and ineffective’.

In a series of posts, MP Owen Smith – who unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership in 2016 – highlighted his own difficulties in securing a GP appointment through what he called the ‘telephone at 8.30am and try your luck’ system.

While this way of managing appointments may be effective for GPs, it does not work for patients, he argued.  

But GPs were quick to point out the issue stems from a lack of Government funding for general practice and ‘cuts elsewhere in society’, and argued it is up to the Government to fix the problem, not GPs.

Writing on social media last week, Mr Smith said: ‘We have to get our GPs to change the systems they use to allocate appointments. It’s almost impossible to get an appointment with mine (they’d all sold out by 8.35am today) and I know that’s a situation experienced by millions in Britain. No wonder A&E fills up.’

In another post he said: ‘To all doctors on my timeline, in light of my pointing out how hard it is to get a GP appointment, I agree (a) nine years of cuts are part of the problem, (b) there aren’t enough GPs and (c) demand is spiralling.

‘But not all surgeries employ this “telephone at 8.30am and try your luck-style” of appointments system – but lots do in my patch. And though it may manage demand effectively for the GPs, it is both frustrating and ineffective for patients.’

In response, Nick Steele, a GP partner in Stockton-on-Tees, said that there is ‘no magic bullet’ to fix this longstanding issue.

He said: ‘Many GPs use different systems to allocate appointments and in my experience, as with many other people, whatever system we employ gets filled up because ultimately we don’t have an unlimited number of GPs. 

‘It’s classic politicians making capital out of GP appointments when we’re under resourced. Increase in funding tends to go to secondary care first [while] primary care is neglected.’

Earlier this month, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock told Pulse some of the extra £4.5bn funding for primary and community care will be used to relieve pressure on GPs, however details on this are still lacking.

Tower Hamlets LMC chair Dr Jackie Applebee agreed it can be frustrating for patients who struggle to get a GP appointment, but argued it is not up to GPs to change this.

She said: ‘It’s not for us to rearrange the way we do it. It’s [up to] the Government to funds us properly [to ensure] we’ve got enough GPs to offer enough appointments to meet demand. 

‘In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the traditional model of general practice. If we change our system, it has to be because of clinical effectiveness and not because of financial pressures.’

‘Of course we should be trying to educate patients on certain things they don’t need to come for but when there are cuts elsewhere in society, such as advice centres, then we’ve got people coming with housing issues. People come to us as a first port of call because we’re easily accessible and we’re there,’ she added.

A Pulse survey in May found one in six GPs have resorted to stopping routine bookings and limiting appointments to ‘emergency’ patients only, due to increasing pressure.