GP practices in one area of Scotland are temporarily extending hours to Saturday mornings to try to meet extra winter demand on the NHS.
NHS Lanarkshire said 40% of the 104 practices in the region will be running additional surgeries from 8.30am to 12.30pm.
It is thought the extra hours, to run throughout January, will cover about half the area’s population.
The news comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday apologised ‘unreservedly’ to patients who faced waits or delayed treatment because of ‘exceptional’ winter pressures.
The move is one of several the health board said it has put in place to cope with the increased demand due to flu and other viruses circulating in the community.
Dr Iain Wallace, medical director for NHS Lanarkshire said both hospitals and GP practices were dealing with exceptionally high numbers of patients.
‘We are working closely with our general medical practice colleagues to respond to the increased need for GP appointments,’ he said.
‘We’ve asked all practices to consider extending their opening hours to cover Saturday mornings in January and we’ve had a great response, with an extended GP service being offered to almost half of the Lanarkshire population across Lanarkshire and more practices coming on-board.’
Dr Wallace has also urged patients to seek health advice for colds, coughs and sore throats from NHS Inform or the local pharmacist to make sure ‘GPs see the patients where only a GP can help’.
He added: ‘This increased capacity will help meet the high level of requests for a GP appointment and address the difficulty that some patients are experiencing in getting a GP appointment.’
Lanarkshire LMC chair Dr Vijay Sonthalia said the scheme was an extension of a locally enhanced service that had already been put in place to manage demand over bank holiday weekends.
‘We decided to do it fairly reluctantly but we are in a very unusual situation because of the very high demand at the moment and we are very much aware of the pressures our acute colleagues are under.’
He said there was no intention to extend the scheme beyond January.
‘We feel we can take some of the pressure off other services,’ he said.
Other health boards in Scotland have also announced extra measures to manage demand as flu takes its toll on a stretched health service.
And NHS Lanarkshire was among several Scottish health boards announcing cancelled elective or non-urgent procedures due to the increased pressure on services.
Figures show the number of flu cases in Scotland during the last week of December was double that seen in the same week in 2016.
Coping with winter pressures
Statistics from Health Protection Scotland showed around 46 per 100,000 people were suffering from influenza last week, compared to 22 the same week in 2016.
And around half of Scottish health boards are reporting ‘significant’ ward pressure as a result of flu, the Scottish Government has said.
It comes as GPs around the UK have told Pulse they are going the extra mile to care for the barrage of patients hit by winter illnesses including cancelling leave and working late into the evening.
In England, local plans to manage winter demand have requested GP practices provide extended hours to reduce the pressure on A&E departments – including staying open on bank holidays.
Meanwhile, NHS England London announced last month that it had achieved English Government pledges to make evening and weekend appointments available to all patients.