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We need a service that stops GPs head-butting the walls



I don’t usually do dedications, but, this time, for reasons that should become apparent, I’m making an exception. So, switchboard operator at my local DGH, this one’s for you.

I won’t bore you with the clinical details. Besides, you’ll recognise the general scenario: my patient is non-cancerous but genuinely urgent, so you can imagine his and my delight when the outpatient appointment I arrange for him turns out to be in December.

There then follows the standard ‘Let’s try ringing the consultant to speed things up’ procedure, aka how to give yourself a subdural using the nearest brick wall. I go through the whole gamut of telephonic torture: switchboard not replying, then replying but cutting me off, then putting me through to a secretary whose phone simply rings forever, then putting me through to another who is on voicemail, then putting me through to yet another who does pick up but is the wrong one and who, when transferring me to the right one who she assures me is there and will pick up the phone, cuts me off.

So, having spent 15 minutes achieving literally nothing, other than temporomandibular spasm, I do the only rational thing a person can do in this circumstance, which is to have a biscuit.

Then I try again. And this time, there must be something in my voice – a slightly cracked, desperate, on-the-edge tone, perhaps – that, to her credit, the switchboard operator picks up. Or maybe it was the stream of industrial-strength swearing.

Anyway, to paraphrase, what she says is this: ‘I can see you’ve been messed about. I’m sorry. I will keep you on the line while I phone the relevant secretaries one by one until I get a response. I will not cut you off and I will keep coming back to you. Don’t worry, I will sort this out.’

Incredible. I’m slack-jawed with a combination of gratitude and defused tension. Two minutes later, all my problems have been resolved.

And suddenly I’m struck by a blindingly obvious idea. What we need, desperately, is GPALS. That is, a GP version of PALS, the Patient Advice and Liaison Service which, down my way, is pretty effective at butt-kicking when patients get stuck in the Kafkan nightmare of secondary care.

GPALS: staffed by real humans who actually pick up a phone and do stuff, a single point of contact I can go to before I give that wall one head-butt to many. And I want this switchboard operator to run it.

‘By the way,’ I say, down the phone. ‘I’ve just had a really intriguing thought. Would you be at all interested in…er…hello? Hello? Hello?’

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield