The British Medical Journal (BMJ) study showing that GP online or telephone appointments risk harming patients once again raises concerns over the state of primary care. The trend to virtual diagnoses, apparent before Covid, was accelerated during the lockdowns when many surgeries closed their doors as people were told to stay away from the NHS.
Two years after the pandemic was declared over, the system has still not returned to where it was. One third of appointments are carried out remotely. There are advantages of online or telephone consultations, especially for busy people who do not have time to visit their GP for a minor ailment nor wish to participate in the 8am lottery for a face-to-face appointment on the day.
If there is choice, there can be little objection. But when patients who would rather see a GP in person are prevented from doing so, or need to go through a triage process conducted by a receptionist, this is not acceptable.
Primary care is the gateway to the rest of the NHS, so getting it right is essential and yet, whenever the shortcomings are identified, the profession refuses to acknowledge them.
Kamila Hawthorne, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said family doctors were being “unfairly blamed” for long delays in diagnosing cancers. She said the fault lay with poor access to diagnostic tests and equipment for ultrasound and MRI scans.
Whatever the reasons, the flaws have been apparent for years. Rather than pretending they don’t exist, GPs should come up with some ideas to make the system work better in the interests of their patients.