We must aim to lessen the load on GPs - Alex Cole-Hamilton

When I was little, I struggled with my ears. That was partly a listening thing (my teachers and my parents would attest to that) but I was also massively prone to ear infections.

They plagued part of my childhood and have, I’m quite certain, contributed to the partial hearing loss I’ve experienced as an adult. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember the excruciating pain. Mum would dose me with Calpol before school, but the only proper relief came with the antibiotics prescribed to me by our GP in St Andrews.

In my recollection, that relief always came swiftly – on several occasions my parents would be on the phone at breakfast time and I would be taken for an appointment on the way home from school.

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These days, ask any Scottish parent in need of an appointment for their child and if it’s not "an emergency” it can be weeks before they are seen. New parents often find it difficult to tell the difference between symptoms of something innocuous or potentially dangerous when caring for a sick baby. Being unable to get the advice of their GP must be intensely worryingly.

This isn’t the fault of our GPs or practice staff, who are expected to spin gold out of straw. There just aren’t enough of them to provide for our population which is ageing and living for longer, often with multiple conditions.

I visited a GP practice in my constituency on Friday, after they got in touch to say that they had hit crisis point before Christmas and then again in January. For the first time they had to adopt special measures and effectively close the surgery when, in one case, a GP racked up nearly 100 separate contacts with patients (in person or over the phone) in a single day. There is a vicious cycle here. We need to recruit and retain more GPs, but the pressures risk putting people off general practice.

How we fix this mess starts with realistic politics. The Scottish Government need to be open and realistic about whether it will meet its target to recruit 800 new GPs by 2027. Experts like Audit Scotland have said that this is not on track.

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Scottish Liberal Democrats brought a package of measures to Parliament when we led a debate on this crisis last week. We pushed the government for a strategy to prevent staff burnout and a staff assembly that would listen to clinicians and put them at the heart of government decision making.Another part of the answer is to draw on the wider skills that exist in mental health, physiotherapy, pharmacy and more. By putting more of these specialists into local teams we can lessen the load on GPs and get you fast access to the best care. It will also be important to prioritise preventative medicine and early intervention that can keep people living well for longer, and ensure we can get the benefits of telehealth and all the monitoring of conditions that can be linked up to devices like your phone.

Most of all we need to make general practice a career of choice again. But we only achieve that by making the lives and workloads of our existing doctors easier in the here and now.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats