How care navigation can help GP practices manage demand

Dr John Havard explains how care navigation can help GP practices to manage increased patient demand and how it is being implemented in his practice

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on GP Online.

Relentless increase in demand means we need some quick, easy solutions that work while the long-term plan of extra GPs and restructuring evolves. Appointment systems are continually changing in practices, varying from nothing booked ahead at all to tranches of appointments being released at different times; making patients phone back is irritating for them, and also an inefficient use of receptionist time.

Many practices operate a ‘doctor first’ approach – and these GPs find that maybe only 30% of the patients need face-to-face consultations. Doctor triage is undoubtedly the most effective because GPs make assessments quickly – if you can cope with all that time on the ‘phone then having the most senior person doing the triage will yield the best results, but it is a way of working that does not appeal to many GPs.

Many practices operate a ‘doctor first’ approach – and these GPs find that maybe only 30% of the patients need face-to-face consultations.

Likewise electronic systems, like AskMyGP, make the patient give the history (which is over half the consultation time) and allow the GP to ‘phone or email back with an appropriate consultation solution.

The receptionist role

Practices need to understand the role of the new receptionist, or ‘care navigator’. Receptionists, basically, determine who can have an appointment and who is told to ‘phone back when more appointments become available. They also decide who has a telephone appointment, an electronic consultation – or pass a task to the GP; this offering is often proportional to availability of appointments and not to clinical need.

GPs need to appreciate the high pressure on receptionists every morning between 8 and 10am. The pattern of high speed appointment allocation at the start of the day develops into telephone, electronic consultations and then GP tasks for urgent cases where there is no capacity left.

It is also true that our frequent attenders know how to crack this system to ensure they get the appointments they want, but do not necessarily need. The danger is that ‘inexperienced patients’ – with clinically concerning symptoms – are likely to accept a sub-standard service, with potentially dangerous outcomes.

How could care navigation work?

If we were running a call centre (which we are!) then we would look at our call volumes and get the staff on deck to deal with calls at a safe and constant rate. It would be logical to have two or three times as many receptionists for the first two hours as for the rest of the day. When the ‘phones are going, and there are appointments on screen, the temptation to give the patient what they (think they) want is overwhelming, and yet the tenet must be that every call has to be dealt with on clinical merit and be independent of appointment supply.

The answer must be to spend more time on the telephone with patients at peak times to get a better understanding of their needs and, therefore, not miss the opportunity to direct them to a more appropriate resource. We must make the most of the first contact with the patient.

Since most of our GP workload is decided in the first two hours of the day we need to facilitate every patient getting the same level of questioning and assessment so we do not default to the GP appointment slot; at present the depth of enquiry increases as the appointment availability decreases.

Our own care navigation room is physically small so we cannot accommodate more people without the ‘call centre’ becoming very cramped. Now we have the telephone technology it should be possible to find one or two people to answer the ‘phones between 8 and 10am remotely. They could be seconded for two hours from admin – or even work from home.

If the care navigators have any doubt about whether a GP appointment is needed, then a call back should be arranged – ideally with a nurse practitioner or community paramedic. We are also looking at how we can improve our automated messaging to direct people to other services, including physiotherapy, if they are put on hold when they call up.

Skill mix and further training

Of course it is vital that, if patients are to be managed appropriately, everyone in the practice understands which patients can be dealt with by which healthcare professional. Further care navigation training is in progress ensuring that complicated patients, who will ultimately need to be seen by a GP, do not get booked in with the nurse practitioner or paramedic first.

But, we believe that care navigation has the potential to help us to deliver the double whammy of improved patient care and easing workload pressure on GPs.

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