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Gearing up for the Olympics

The Olympic and Paralympic Games represent one of the largest ever peace-time events in terms of logistics. About 14,000 athletes from 205 nations will compete at more than 30 sports venues across the country, 12 of which will be in London. Ticket sales have topped 10 million and there are more than 600 major cultural events planned in London.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most of us. I recall the joy and excitement of the announcement of the award of the Games to London back in 2005 and it has been amazing to see the transformation of East London, to see how the whole community has been involved and how Olympic fever has fired the imaginations of the athletes of the future in our local schools and youth clubs.  The legacy is already written and will live on in terms of the opportunities created by new jobs, the 50,000 homes, improved transport links in the area, the sports arenas and the facilities left for future generations.

To say that some thought and planning had gone into all of this would be a major understatement. Everything is on show – the city, its transport, hospitals, ambulance services, policing, hospitality industry – and more.

We can predict the predictable: we're planning for increased A&E attendances by people with alcohol and drug problems, and for disruption to transport with spin-off effects on business continuity. This is particularly relevant to staff working in the NHS and emergency services.  

But the NHS in London is also well prepared for the less predictable, having carried out extensive emergency planning and testing.

As a board member and medical director of North East London and the City PCT cluster, I have offered advice to the planning group and to the Board and Executive, as well as chairing a clinical commissioning committee for the CCG chairs of City and Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. In this role, I have also been encouraging Practices to be ‘Games-ready' and to use the Games as a platform to continue the good work they already do to promote health and well being and prevent ill health.

Primary care will, as ever, be one of the lynch-pins in the provision and response of the local NHS. There will be dedicated primary care facilities at the Olympic venue, along with the variety of walk-in and GP-led sites across the capital all ready to face the challenge of a rise in the number of visitors. The burden on individual GP surgeries will vary, depending how close they are to key tourist attractions. And there will be an onus on practices to be flexible in their approach to treating visitors who may pitch up, and to help them navigate the health system to find the right services.

Primary care will also have to be able and willing to step up to the mark in terms of assistance and collaboration with other parts of the system – namely, public health colleagues in case of infection outbreak, local pharmacies, and local A&E services. We have risen to the challenge before, notably the day after the announcement of the award of the Games to London in 2005 – the 7/7 bombings – and more recently through the swine flu epidemic. 

GPs can use the Olympics to reinforce our campaigns around healthy lifestyles, exercise, health promotion and improving wellbeing and spreading key public health messages. The public will be on our doorstep, ready to watch the world's greatest athletes perform for six weeks: we may never have such a captive audience again.

Dr May Cahill is the joint medical director at  NHS North East London and the City (NELC), and a GP partner at London Fields Medical Centre, Hackney, East London.