This site is intended for health professionals only

How long? Seemingly the hardest question to answer

Dr david turner duo 3x2

Dr david turner duo 3×2

‘How long have you had these symptoms?’

‘Oh, quite some time’

‘So how long would that be in actual time?’

A furrowing of brow and brief silence follows, then a declaration, pronounced with gusto:

‘Oh, a long time.’

You scream inwardly and begin the usual benchmarks. Did they start before: Summer/Easter/Christmas/the last World War?

The most important piece of information we need while taking a medical history, after the actual symptoms, also seems to be the most elusive. There is no end of detail about the conversation with the cashier in the supermarket or the length of the queue in the post office, but an inquiry into how long a patient has had their problem is answered in every way except numerically.

However, I realised recently we GPs are just as bad.

‘How long will I have to wait for my scan/outpatient appointment/operation?’

‘Well, probably some time’

‘So, are we talking weeks or months doctor?’

‘Well… I honestly would be guessing but I’d say months rather than weeks.’

The reality is the NHS is all or nothing, it’s a two week wait cancer referral, or an eternal wait at the bottom of the list, at best. At worst, your referral is batted back to your GP after a couple of weeks because they hadn’t included a copy of your serum rhubarb level. Unless you tick a box for cancer or heart disease, how long you will wait in anybody’s guess.

It’s fantastic that we see people with suspected cancer or heart disease within two weeks, but there is an enormous amount of pathology outside of these two categories which causes significant pain and distress, worsened by the uncertainty of us being unable to give the patient a ball park idea of how long they will have to wait to be seen.

So Matt, forget your apps and IT for a minute and do something useful, by forcing trusts to give accurate and up to date information in a timely manner to patients about waiting times and stopping the practice of hospitals bouncing referrals back to GPs because some tiny and usually irrelevant detail is missing on the referral form.

How long do you think we will have to wait for this?

Dr David Turner is a GP in North West London