Scottish GP stops patients from phoning surgery with introduction of innovative online form

A Scottish medical practice is set to stop patients phoning for doctor’s appointments by introducing a new system that involves them completing an online form  detailing their health issue

This is an edited version of an article first published by the Scotsman.

The form will then be reviewed by a clinician who will tell a care adviser to phone the patient back and arrange a slot to see a GP – if that has been decided.

The new way of working, described as an ‘exciting new computer system’ on a surgery leaflet, will come into effect on 1 March.

The move comes as GP practices in the Dunfermline area have seen patient numbers increase by 890 in one year with the population growing by more than 3,000 in the last five years.

A patient who wished to remain anonymous said: “I’m actually thinking about changing surgeries because of all of this.

“I can describe my symptoms face-to-face and verbally tell someone what was wrong but I couldn’t put it into writing through a form. I think it’s a bit impersonal – it used to be it was the receptionist you had to get past if you wanted to see the doctor and this feels like we’re going back to that.

“You have to ask for your prescriptions online or physically go into the surgery – they stopped you phoning up for repeat prescriptions.

“It takes you over a week to get a prescription now.”

They added: “We’re jumping through hoops here – I just feel that the surgery blames the patients for stopping them achieving their aims.

“It would be better if they didn’t have any patients! The medical practice has been like that for a long time.

“They’ve got a big chart up on the wall that tells you how many people in the last month have missed their appointment, but I told them half of them couldn’t get through on the telephone to cancel [their appointment] as the lines are that busy.

“They did a survey and the biggest bugbear for patients was that they couldn’t get through to book an appointment – so why did they not just put another telephone line in?”

Les Elder, practice manager at the Nethertown Surgery, said patients can use the system 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Scottish government is behind a move towards specialist staff helping to relieve the burden on GP practices who are finding it difficult to meet the expectations of patients.

Elder said the surgery was currently training staff to be care advisers, able to guide patients to the most appropriate person to provide their care.

He added: “Many patients will book an appointment, when a prescription or other outcome would be appropriate without the patient having to attend for a face-to face appointment with a GP. What I would like to stress is this does not mean the practice will stop seeing or telephoning patients.

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“We have an appointment system which is not meeting the demand of the patients on most days. Our practice list size has increased by 8 per cent in the past year and is likely to continue to grow and we have lost one day of GP time per week.”

Scottish conservative MSP, Miles Briggs, was critical of the new system. He said: “Patients want to see continuity of care and any added extra layers of bureaucracy will not be welcomed. It is important that patients have easy access to their family GP and the process of booking an appointment is not over-complicated.

“We have seen a lost decade in Scotland under the SNP to deliver a sustainable GP service and the result is GP practices having to take these sorts of steps to manage demand at the same time as NHS Scotland is facing a GP shortage.”

Dr Andrew Cowie, deputy chair of the BMA’s Scottish GP Committee said: “GP practices need to design and implement systems for appointments and access based on their own local circumstances and the specific challenges faced by their patients.

“Clearly innovation and digital solutions have a role to play here, though that does need to be balanced against the need to ensure no-one – including those who are either less technologically literate, or aren’t able to access technology – is disadvantaged and unable to access services. We are sure the practice in question is taking this into account and it is good to see them looking to ensure patients are directed to those working in the practice who are best able to help them.

“However, the need for this type of innovation only goes to demonstrate the workforce challenges being faced by primary care. Put simply, we don’t yet have enough GPs to meet demand effectively.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The majority of GP practices are independent bodies who have been contracted to deliver services to the NHS and, while we expect satisfactory systems to be in place for the benefit of all patients, we cannot stipulate what these should be.

“However, it is absolutely right that patients should be able to see their GP when they need to. That’s why we have a record number of GPs working in Scotland, with more GPs per head than the rest of UK – and we are increasing the number by at least 800 over the next decade.”

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