FEARS are growing that some people in the Lothians are being put off seeking medical help because of the difficulty of getting through to GP surgeries on the phone.
In response to concerns from our readers an Evening News probe discovered wide ranging response times, with lines frequently engaged or calls taking several minutes to be answered.
And today a former Scottish doctors chief warned that as surgery budgets continue to be squeezed the situation is likely to worsen in the future.
We investigated how easy it was to speak to a receptionist at 20 GP practices in the Edinburgh region, and while some were easy to contact, it took repeat attempts just to speak to a staff member at others. We found it could take up to 15 minutes to get an answer.
At one GP surgery – Dalkeith Medical Practice – we got through first time just once in six attempts, and on one occasion had to try seven times, waiting at least two minutes between attempts, to speak to a human being.
On other occasions while ringing other practices we were left waiting for minutes on end before the phone line went dead.
The calls were made mainly between the hours of 11am and 1pm – after the busy morning period – over the course of several days.
Margaret Watt, chair of the Scotland Patients Association, warned that excessive delays could put patients at risk as they could be put off going to doctors for vital checks, and added that she had personal experience of having difficulty getting through to surgeries.
She said: “I’ve been in that position and it’s frustrating and not acceptable. People can be put off by the length it takes to get through and it could lead to their problem becoming worse.
“People should keep trying, but some don’t have the patience and I can understand that. Others are busy and don’t have the luxury of sitting on the phone for hours on end. If GPs know patients are waiting a long time to get through and they’re complaining about it, it’s up to them to sort it out. Of course it can be dangerous, they have no way of knowing what these patients are phoning up for.
“They can install more phone lines and it won’t cost an awful lot of money, but then that’s no good if they haven’t got the staff to answer them.”
On the morning of October 15, the phone line at Dalkeith Medical Practice, which serves 10,000 patients, was engaged on the first two occasions that we attempted to get through. The next four times a recorded message saying “if you get an engaged tone you will have to call us back” was played before the familiar busy tone sounded. We got through at the seventh attempt, after hanging on the line for a minute.
On Monday last week, the line cut off three times before we waited two minutes and 14 seconds at the fourth attempt to speak to a receptionist. The only time we got through first time was at 11:27am on Tuesday last week, when we waited 53 seconds to speak to someone.
Dr Dean Marshall a partner at the practice and former chair of the British Medical Association’s Scottish GPs committee, accepted that there were issues at the practice, but warned they were likely to get worse in light of funding cuts in primary care and rising demand. He said: “There are a wide variety of reasons and it’s not clear cut. In the last few weeks we have had significant problems with staff sickness, the practice manager has been manning the phones, and as we are right in the town centre – we have a significant number of walk-ins.
“We also have very, very high demand. Our practice list has risen by over 1000. Funding for GPs has been cut year on year for seven years and, unfortunately, we are seeing the effects of that. Demand is certainly outstripping capacity. More phone lines isn’t the answer as we need more people to answer them.
“If you look at A&E, they make quite a bit of noise about how they’re struggling and they get extra money. We have been asking for years and had our money cut, year on year.”
Some practices have introduced a “triage” system, in which patients have to speak to a doctor on the phone before they are offered an appointment as a way of driving down unnecessary appointments. Dalkeith Medical Practice have resisted this as a result of opposition from patients.
A meeting took place recently between GPs in East Lothian and Midlothian and health secretary Alex Neil, when concerns were raised over lack of funding reducing access to primary care to the public, including the ability of practices to offer appointments.
Dr Marshall added: “Until it [additional funding] appears, it’s unlikely that things will get better and very likely that they’re going to get worse.”
The meeting between GPs and the Health Secretary was organised by Midlothian North and Musselburgh MSP Colin Beattie, who is a patient at Dalkeith Medical Practice.
Mr Beattie said the issue of improving access to GPs was a complex one.
“All surgeries distribute their resources in the way they see fit,” he said. “My experience is if you phone first thing in the morning you’re going to have trouble. I would hope people would persist. But if a particular problem has been identified, I hope they will do something about it.”
The BMA added its voice to the concerns, saying the organisation was aware that some patients could find it difficult to access their GP. A spokeswoman said: “This is a particularly busy time of year for GPs across Scotland as they deliver the flu immunisation programme. The BMA has recommended that practices regularly review their arrangements.”
While problems were identified at some practices, others performed well. Staff at Polwarth Gardens Surgery answered the phone in an average time of little more than five seconds, with the line always open when we called.
Jackson Carlaw, a senior MSP and Tory health spokesman at Holyrood, said that the onset of winter should act as a timely opportunity for GPs to check their patients were able to speak to someone who could help promptly.