November 17, 2021 6.15 am

Life as a GP in the pandemic: Daily abuse, missed appointments and COVID deniers

Abuse and abandoned appointments making GPs’ jobs more difficult than ever

By Local Democracy Reporter

The demanding workload that GPs face every day is made more difficult by dozens of patients abandoning appointments, abuse to receptionists and COVID scepticism.

A Scunthorpe practice has lifted the lid on what it is like for staff as more people than ever want to see their GP.

They are often left frustrated as hours are lost to missed appointments, despite doctors having to work harder than ever before.

Receptionists also have to face ‘daily abuse’ from rude callers.

The West Common Lane Teaching Practice has called for patients to be more understanding as GPs deal with the massive demand.

Dr Laura Thomas said: “The number of appointments in which patients did not attend has shot right up through the pandemic. It’s incredibly frustrating when we’ve got so many people we need to see.

“We lost an entire clinic worth of appointments last week become people didn’t turn up – slots which could have been given to other patients.

“We send people a reminder by text the day before. If they want to cancel, all they need to do is text back a single word, but they didn’t do that.”

On that morning, six of the 12 patients another GP at the practice was supposed to see hadn’t turned up. One had been made the appointment just 90 minutes beforehand.

This would be annoying for staff at any time, but particularly when health services are being stretched so thin.

Phones are turned on at the practice at 8.20am, with GPs often carrying on working long after they have gone home.

“We’re all working harder than we’ve ever worked before. The demand just keeps growing,” Dr Thomas said.

“The pressure on all health services is huge at the moment. I’m not sure if Covid caused this or just highlighted the problem.

“The work that patients see is just the tip of the iceberg. We will spend several hours a day reviewing medication, reading letters from the hospital and reviewing blood results.

“Some times you are still up at midnight finishing work. You can’t hand over to anyone else – it needs to be done.”

By 8.45am, the appointments for that morning are usually booked.

The phones won’t stop ringing, with GPs jumping in to help with enquiries wherever needed.

Meanwhile, an ever-growing list of tasks is building up on their computers, which they work tirelessly to keep on top of.

Like all GP surgeries, the West Common Lane practice was forced to rely on phone and video appointments through the pandemic.

GPs are now seeing patients in-person again, but are still using calls as an efficient way to reach people quickly.

However, not everyone is happy with the new system, with GPs sometimes being blamed for not seeing enough people in person.

“Some people see telephone appointments as ‘lesser’ but that’s not true,” Dr Thomas said.

“90 per cent of the time, you can get enough information from asking questions on the phone. In the ten per cent where you need to see someone, you can ask them to come in.

“For people who work 9 to 5, the flexibility is really useful as they can ring from work rather than taking the day off.”

It takes Dr Thomas minutes to provide reassurance and advice to a worried mum over the phone.

Later, she decides another patient’s kidney infection is serious enough that an urgent in-person appointment is arranged.

When patients do come to the surgery, anyone with possible Covid symptoms is asked to avoid the waiting room and use a side door.

Sometimes they are asked to take a PCR test – but this doesn’t always go down well.

“People are very resistant to the idea that they may have Covid. We get so much abuse when we ask people if they have had a PCR test,” Dr Thomas said.

“I’m not sure if they think we use it as an excuse not to see them, or if they believe that the pandemic is ‘over’ now.

“Our staff aren’t immune to Covid, and it really affects us if they test positive or have to self-isolate.

“Luckily, telephone appointments is making it easier for us to continue helping patients from home if we can’t come to work.”

Sadly, most of the rude treatment is reserved for front-line staff who field the calls all day.

It is their job to gather information and decide who would be best to deal with the problem, but callers sometimes look down on them as a barriers to GPs.

“The phones will ring pretty non-stop all of the day, it can get quite manic,” Samantha Robinson, a receptionist at the practice for four years, said.

“Unfortunately, we do get abuse on a daily basis. Sometimes you have to step away for a minute after a rude or difficult call.

“Other times, people won’t trust you. They will say ‘I’m not telling you, you’re just a receptionist.’

“But you’re only trying to gather the information to get them to the right person!

“On the other hand, some patients are so grateful and will send us thank you cards, which outweighs the bad and keeps you going. It is one of those jobs which is different every day and you know you’ve made a difference.”

The British Medical Association recently warned that the NHS is seeing some of the worst strain in its 70 year history, with GP surgeries on the frontlines of it.

There has also been trouble recruiting and retaining staff in areas like North Lincolnshire.

With the non-stop demand for GPs set to continue, the phone will keep ringing at practices like West Common Lane.

But staff are hopeful that if people treat the service and their time with more respect, they will be able to keep on top of it.

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