Patients and doctors are raising concern once more over restricted access to a quarter of GP surgeries, which are found to close for half a day in the middle of the working week. A recent investigation conducted by the Daily Mail also discovered that a number of surgeries can be closed for up to four and a half hours during the lunch time period.
The newspaper reports that patients who ring the surgery during the lunch hour are either diverted to an out-of-hours service or advised by a recorded message to call back. Analysis of 944 GP surgeries in areas including, London, Manchester and Birmingham reveals nearly 30 per cent were unavailable for a prolonged period during the working week, 26 per cent closed for one afternoon a week, and 3 per cent took a lunch break lasting between two and four and a half hours.
The findings may not come as a surprise to the many patients who try to book appointments, yet it was only last October that the government announced a £50 million “GP Access Fund”, allowing patients to see their GP at evenings or weekends. More than 1,140 surgeries indicated their interest in opening up extended access to their patients.
The implications for patients who find they are either delayed or unable to gain access to a GP when required are also having an effect on doctors themselves. The British Medical Association (BMA) has reported that many members admit that morale was low as they struggled with growing workloads and longer hours.
At the same time, patient groups are increasingly worried. Recent figures suggest that two million patients now have to wait three weeks to see their GP, placing an increased burden on over-stretched hospital A&E departments, a number of which are earmarked for closure as a result of government cutbacks.
Many GPs can be working up to 15 hours or more every day, yet despite increasing workloads GP practices are allocated just 9 per cent of NHS funding. According to the Patients Association, some GPs now close their surgeries for half a day each week so that they can undertake other necessary duties, although currently, GPs can opt out of working evenings and weekends. The Association is urging the government to ensure that patients are able to seek GP appointments during the main surgery hours of between 8am and 6.30pm.
Their fear that, ultimately, patients will continue to suffer as a result of overstretched NHS resources, “if they are not able to access GP services when they need it” is shared by Asher Burton, Solicitor at Your Legal Friend who also says, “Patients’ health is at real risk if GPs are not available for appointments - inevitably putting further pressure on A&E departments, and increasing the risk of substandard treatment being carried out.”
Asher refers to the Your Legal Friend Commissioned British Health report, which found that some 75 per cent of patients delay going to the doctors. More than half of respondents said they delayed because “it takes too long to get an appointment.”
NHS England say they have cut GPs' targets by more than a third to provide doctors with more time to be with patients and they hope that many surgeries “could be open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.” As recent research clearly shows, the issue of access when the patient needs to see a doctor must now be urgently addressed.