It’s fair to say that Matt Hancock’s pronouncement that henceforth all consultations should be “teleconsultations unless there’s a compelling reason not to”, has not been universally welcomed in general practice. In my surgery, practicing in a pandemic has seen us change our ways of working beyond imagination.
In March, like many other practices, we shifted overnight to a “telephone first” approach. And whilst at peak-pandemic we kept face-to-face consultations to a minimum, we’re now seeing more and more patients in person again.
Although many consultations can be safely done over the phone, we’re very clear that there are some patients – and some conditions and circumstances – where a patient needs a face-to-face appointment with a GP. NHS England have also been clear that all practices must offer face-to-face consultations if clinically appropriate.
The unique challenges in primary care
But maintaining general practice as a “front door” to the NHS that is safe for both GPs and patients is not easy. Options to quarantine and pre-test patients set out in national guidance and intended to help protect secondary care cannot be deployed in primary care.
Other national guidance – for example regarding wearing masks in clinical sites – often seems to be issued with secondary care in mind, with little or delayed clarity for primary care. Measures like maintaining social distancing are also likely to be harder in general practice, where the ability of a surgery to physically distance staff from each other, and patients from each other and staff, is in part dependent on physical factors.
Options to quarantine and pre-test patients set out in national guidance and intended to help protect secondary care cannot be deployed in primary care
Things like the size and layout of a practice, or the availability of a car park for patients to wait in are hard to change quickly.
Stemming from those challenges are ones related to staffing; how to keep practice staff safe from covid-19? NHS England and the British Medical Association have stated that staff should have rigorous, culturally sensitive risk assessment and consider ceasing direct patient contact where risks from covid-19 are high.
The unequal distribution of risk
The risk of catching covid-19 – or dying from it – is not equally distributed amongst GPs. Age, sex, ethnicity, and underlying health conditions are all important risk factors.
New Health Foundation research finds that not only are a significant proportion of GPs at high or very high risk of death from covid-19 (7.9 per cent), but one in three single-handed practices is likely to be run by a GP at high risk. If those GPs step back from face-to-face consultations we estimate that at least 700,000 patients could be left without access to in-person appointments. Even more concerningly, there’s a marked deprivation gradient.
If GPs at high risk from covid-19 step back from direct face-to-face appointments, and gaps in provision aren’t plugged, the patients likely to be most affected are those in deprived areas – the same people who have already been hardest hit by the pandemic
GPs at high risk of death from covid are much more likely to be working in areas of greater socioeconomic deprivation. And single-handed practices run by GPs classed as being at very high risk from covid are more than four times as likely to be located in the most deprived clinical commissioning groups than the most affluent.
If GPs at high risk from covid-19 step back from direct face-to-face appointments, and gaps in provision aren’t plugged, the patients likely to be most affected are those in deprived areas – the same people who have already been hardest hit by the pandemic.
Where do solutions lie?
Ultimate responsibility for providing core general practice services to populations lies with CCGs. In some areas, collaborations between practices (such as GP federations and primary care networks), may be able to organise cross-cover to surgeries where face-to-face provision is not adequate to meet need.
But these collaborations have not developed at equal pace across the country, have many demands on their capacity and may not be sufficiently mature to take on this challenge. These local factors – including the availability of locums – will need to be considered by commissioners.
It’s vital that CCGs act quickly to understand the extent to which the concerns around GP supply highlighted by our research apply in their localities. In some cases, additional funding will be needed to enable practices to ‘buy in’ locum support for face-to-face consultations. This should be considered a core part of the NHS covid response.
Face-to-face GP appointments remain a crucial NHS service, and must be available to the population in proportion with need. Just as in secondary care, protecting staff, and protecting patients in primary care will require additional investment. Failure to adequately assess the extent of the problem, and to provide sufficient resource to engineer solutions is likely to further exacerbate existing health inequalities.
Original Source: The HSJ