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Since the start of the pandemic it is estimated there have been 26 million fewer surgery visits, putting lives at risk. Many people are said to be scared of catching coronavirus at the surgery. Official figures revealed that just three in 10 appointments are now carried out face-to-face.
The majority of patients have had to settle for a virtual or phone consultation rather than see their doctor.
It has heightened concerns that people with serious ailments are not being treated quickly enough.
Figures obtained from the Royal College of General Practitioners show that in the three months from July to September, doctors in England delivered 38.6 million routine appointments, with 68 percent – some 26.3 million – carried out remotely.
During the same period last year they delivered 41.2 million appointments with 73 percent held in person.
Professor Karol Sikora, former director of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme, said: “In some cases a telephone appointment will suffice, but for some signs and symptoms a face-to-face appointment is absolutely vital.
“With the effort that has gone into getting shops and restaurants open over the last six months, there really is no excuse if GPs are lacking any support they need. This is not a new problem. Whatever the GPs need within reason, the Government needs to provide it. We can’t let non-Covid patients continue to suffer because thousands of lives are at stake. This is a ticking time bomb.”
The Covid-19 crisis has meant severe delays to cancer screening and waits for further diagnostic tests and treatment, with the backlog now affecting 2.4 million people.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has admitted the number waiting longer than the 62-day target to begin treatment for cancer after an urgent GP referral had “increased substantially” since the crisis began in March. But he said that the situation for patients is improving.
Separate figures issued yesterday suggest a startling number of lost appointments since the start of the pandemic, suggesting millions of people have been put off seeing their GP.
According to NHS data there were 146.2 million appointments made at GP surgeries in England between March and August last year.
But during the same period this year 119.5 million were made. These account for surgery visits and will include millions of appointments where a doctor was not seen.
Ian Trenholm, chief executive of the Care Quality Commission health watchdog, said: “Although there are an increasing number of appointments available and GPs are working incredibly hard to get that number up to pre-Covid level, the reality is it’s probably not there yet.”
The figures on face-to-face appointments revealed today by the Daily Express come just a month after NHS England wrote to every surgery to remind GP practices they must ensure patients can access appointments with a doctor in the surgery when they need them.
The letter followed a previous communication in which the NHS wrote to all practices on July 31 to say failure to offer appropriate face-to-face appointments at surgeries, in addition to video, online and telephone consultations, would be a breach of contract.
Yesterday, doctors urged the public to continue making appointments, saying the doors of their surgeries are open.
Dr Ian Campbell, an NHS GP in Nottingham, said: “There’s no doubt we have to enact changes to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But that comes at a price.
“Throughout lockdown people have been reluctant to come and see their GP. People have so often stated to me that they didn’t want to disturb me, they didn’t want to burden the NHS. But the reality is their well intentioned delay has put them at risk.”
He added: “People have been slow to present with signs of serious illness. And when they have, the waiting time for treatment has been delayed for so long that lives have without doubt been put at risk. Delayed treatment equals poorer prognosis and lockdown has caused many people irreversible harm.”
Dr Caron Morton, a partner at a surgery in Ludlow, Shrops, said that she had referred patients who should have come earlier with “red flag” symptoms.
She has urged people not to stay away when they have worries because early diagnosis and treatment can be the difference between life and death.
Dr Morton said: “I understand why people are doing it. But I cannot stress how vital is for people to get an early appointment when they have symptoms that they think might be serious.
“Unfortunately, I have seen people who it would have been better to have seen earlier.”
NHS England cites research claiming almost two-thirds of the public are happy to have a remote consultation. But with winter approaching there is concern the crisis over GP access will worsen.
Nikki Kanani, medical director of primary care for NHS England, said: “While many people, particularly those most vulnerable to Covid-19, want the convenience of a consultation over the phone or video, the NHS has been and will continue to offer face-to-face appointments .
“I would urge anyone who feels they need medical support to come forward so they can get the care, support and advice they need. The NHS is here for you.”
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