Before I became an MSP, I used the GP surgery like everybody else: vaccines for my kids, routine check-ups, the occasional course of antibiotics. Like most people, I noticed over time, however, that my GP was getting busier, that unless I had a real emergency it would be a week or two before I could be seen.
Such was the wait that – embarrassingly – I even sometimes got better by the time that appointment came around. I didn’t give it much thought.
Two days after I was elected to the Scottish Parliament as MSP for Edinburgh Western last year, something happened to change my view of what’s happening in our health service entirely. A steady trickle of constituents started filing into my office. They were all patients at East Craigs Parkgrove health centre. Each was holding a prescription and Stapled to those prescriptions were letters from the practice saying in essence, “Help us. Contact your MSP. We cannot go on like this.”
That GPs in a popular and well-regarded medical practice in our nation’s capital were actively seeking the help of their patients to contact their elected Member of Parliament, was a profound wake-up call. This was a surgery which, despite the valiant efforts of practice doctors and staff, could no longer sustain the heavy demand on a reduced complement of GPs.
Their situation is by no means unique. Across the city GP surgeries are on their knees, buckling under the weight of demand and a proliferation of new housing developments which have not seen additional health care services established to support them.
In many cases, practices are losing partners through retirement, sickness or relocation and surgeries are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new doctors to fill the gaps.
Now a report by Audit Scotland, published just last week is sounding alarm bells about a staffing shortage, not just in local surgeries but at every level of our health service.
Whether its paediatrics, nursing, allied health professions or midwifery, there is an existential crisis in our NHS and the statistics speak for themselves. Cancer waiting time targets haven’t been met in over 54 months. Children with profound mental health difficulties are waiting as much as two years for support and thousands more are being turned away from specialist beds when they need them most because there are no staff to take care of them; and A&E departments didn’t meet the waiting time for a full eight months.
Time and again I’ve raised this on the floor of the Scottish Parliament, often with the First Minister herself, and am always met with a trite response from the SNP “It’s worse in England” they say (It isn’t) “Stop doing our NHS down” they say (I wasn’t).
The SNP have been in power for ten years, they have all of the powers necessary to turn this around, but still they fail to answer this challenge and the cost of this inaction can be measured out in human lives. So it’s time they got serious.
Now it’s easy for opposition politicians to complain about the government and leave it at that, but I’m not going to do that so here are some steps that the government could take right now to help:
1. Change planning rules so that councils can compel developers to build health centres in developments of a certain size and allow planning committees to reject applications if there are insufficient health services.
2. Increase the workforce planning cycle from five years to ten. IT takes at least seve years to train a GP and right now workforce planning is not geared up to anticipate things like retirement trends.
3. Put a mental health talking therapist in every surgery in Scotland. One in four GP appointments are related to mental ill health. This would massively reduce pressure on over worked GPs.
4. Make it easier for retired GPs to come back in to perform occasional sessions in surgeries.
5. Invest in social care so that packages of support are available as people leave hospital. This is a major source of congestion throughout the entire NHS.
Considering the perfect storm we currently face in our ageing demographic and our surging populations in certain parts of the country, we need to meet the investment that our hard-working NHS staff put into our communities with proper investment in them.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western