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Teaching patients about self care this winter could cut demand in the long run

It’s that time of year when consultation rates soar and we all dread what lies ahead over the coming months. Entertaining the mother-in-law at Christmas and the sound of the latest X-Factor winner’s single? No. It’s much worse than that. It’s the huge rise in demand for GP appointments when we are already working at full capacity, and this year on top of the influx of winter URTIs we face the added pressure of last year’s imposed QOF changes and targets.

If Jeremy Hunt wants to get a snapshot of the demand crisis facing GPs, he can spend a day in our surgeries any day in November and see the winter pressures we face every day first hand. It’s estimated that GPs in England have 340 million consultations each year, peaking during the winter season. Even though last winter was mild, GPs still managed to do 750,000 consultations for flu alone, to say nothing of the other respiratory tract infections we tackled.1

The single greatest challenge facing the profession right now is how to manage increasing demand and workload when we have seen the percentage of NHS funding into general practice fall from 10.5% to 7.4% since 2005. Yes, the Government has pledged an additional £250m to help ease winter pressures in England, but that money has been directed to A&E and NHS 111. Where is the additional resource for GPs?

The GPC is continuing to fight for the vital shift of resources into general practice, and as part of this year’s contract agreement we have managed to stop some of the box-ticking and most damaging effects of last year’s imposition.

However that doesn’t help us now – we have to start doing things differently ourselves. We must enable patients, as much as we can, to start taking control of their own health and change the way we practice if we are to cope with what is ahead. We must equip patients with the knowledge and confidence to know when to seek help and when it is safe to manage their own illness.

There’s no better time to kick-start a self care-aware approach at your practice – it may just help you cope this winter. The Self Care Forum has a raft of resources freely available on its website to help, including a new initiative Treat Yourself Better without Antibiotics as well as information for patients about managing the top ten common ailments, normal duration of symptoms and advice about red flags and when to see a GP.

Skills for the long-term

We need to have a commitment to enable self-care that goes beyond just meeting winter pressures, but helps us meet the demands of a growing elderly population where long-term conditions are the norm. Self care is not just for treating minor ailments, it’s about supporting patients to optimise their health long-term.

The new GPC consultation document Developing General Practice Today Providing Healthcare Solutions for the Future sets out the solutions to some of the most difficult challenges the NHS faces and how general practice needs to be supported and developed to achieve its full potential. It raises self-care as a potential solution along with integrated care, closer to home, supported by extended teams built around the GP practice with patients empowered as partners in managing their own conditions.

But GPs can’t fit anything else into a packed consultation – it takes time and resources to enable us to deliver patient education. A national campaign for patients, and local and national incentives could help self-care aware consultations become the norm, an investment to save long-term. To that end, the Self Care Forum recently produced a mandate with a six-point action plan calling for an open and honest debate about the future role of the NHS.

The push for 24-hour convenience is fuelling patient demand when the NHS is not adequately funded for need, let alone want. Unless we have an honest debate about appropriate use of resources and help patients help themselves stay healthy the NHS in my view unsustainable. Let’s support self care – not just to help our workload this winter, but for our patients’ health and the future health of the NHS

Dr Beth McCarron Nash is a GPC negotiator, member of the Self Care Forum and a GP in Truro, Cornwall.


GOV.UK. Hunt – NHS must fundamentally change to solve A&E problems. 10 September 2013.