A GP in Wales has spoken of the pressures doctors are under after a watchdog revealed this week that patients were experiencing a “crisis of access” to surgeries.

Gareth Oelmann, who is a GP at Clark Avenue Surgery in Cwmbran, said he is not surprised by the findings, and shed light on a sector overstretched and underfunded.

“We are well aware that demand is outstripping capacity and that there is a need for investment,” said Dr Oelmann, who is and chairman of the Gwent Local Medical Committee.

Read more: To read more about the pressures on the healthcare system visit our health section here

“The increase in demand seems to be somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent for appointments and that certainly reflects in the difficulties patients are having.

“GPs are delivering more appointments than ever and are working longer hours than ever. As a consequence staff right across the board from receptionists to nurses and managers are exhausted, burnt out and under considerable pressure to cope with a rising demand.”

The watchdog the Community Health Council (CHC) said many patients were left waiting for up to an hour on the phone to speak to someone. When they finally get through CHC said patients are often told there are no available appointments.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said doctors were trying to ease the problem by using modern technology, which Dr Oelmann said will have to continue for the foreseeable future. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an existing issue.

“It could be described as a perfect storm,” he said. “The pandemic has exposed the issue that there are simply not enough doctors and staff in primary care.

“The aim is that a blended approach to consultations will ensure all patients have access in a way that works for them. It [phone call consultations for some] will simply have to continue to cope with demand.”

Patients have repeatedly spoken of long waits on the phone, including Nigel Harris from Barry who this week said he called his local surgery - Waterfront Medical Centre - 2,000 times over three days before he was able to see a doctor. He had been recovering from surgery, and required an urgent sick note and postoperative treatment.

Nigel said he believed he was eventually seen as a reward for his perseverance, but he feared some would decide to go to A&E and heap further pressure on emergency hospital departments, while others might decide to give up on getting the healthcare they need.

Patients at the Grange hospital in Cwmbran said at least 15 ambulances were carrying patients and waiting outside A&E on September 8, leading to delays of up to 18 hours for some

CHC’s report found that many patients across Wales were being told doctors' appointments for the whole day were already fully booked by 8.10am - 10 minutes after lines for appointments opened.

A spokeswoman for the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board explained: “When first triaging patients, our GP receptionists have been specifically trained when asking questions to ensure the patient is treated by the right healthcare professional, first time. We must remind the public that the GP may not be the right person to see depending on your healthcare needs but it may be another member of our Primary Care team such as the Practice Nurse, Optometrist or local Pharmacist.

“We appreciate that when people are unwell, they will want to speak to a healthcare professional quickly and it can be frustrating if they have to make numerous calls. Our GP practices are experiencing high levels of telephone calls so where appropriate, we’re asking patients to contact their GP practice through alternative means listed on their practice’s website. As Winter approaches, we’re also asking the public to help us help you; please seek advice from your local pharmacist on medications and minor illnesses such as coughs, colds and headaches or practice self-care at home.”

Dr Oelmann echoed those sentiments and urged patients to keep trying and “stay on the line”.

“Right across the board people are tired and frustrated by the pressures of the rising demand and not being able to deliver the service to the satisfaction of the patients,” he said. “We appreciate that there is a backlog. There is a backlog right through the system and it’s not just GPs - it’s right through.

“There are backlogs in secondary care, the ambulance service, social care, everything is interlinked. None of it can be viewed in isolation, and it goes around in a circle and becomes more and more difficult for the staff.

“We do recognise how frustrating it is for patients who can’t get through to GPs on the phone. The fact they can’t get through isn’t that the receptionist or the GP isn’t working to their utmost capacity, it just shows the demand and how unbelievably busy the practices are at the moment.

“Please persevere and you will eventually get through and be given an appointment with the appropriate healthcare professional.”

Dr Oelmann said he worries young people are being put off the profession as a result of the pandemic and current pressures, while older doctors are leaving the sector, adding to reduced capacity in the face of post-lockdown backlogs.

“We have a serious recruitment and retention issue across the board for GPs,” he said. “I have concerns over the impact of the pandemic on public perception of GPs which will affect people wanting to enter the profession. Many senior GPs that are approaching retirement age are deciding to leave now.

“What is important throughout all this is that we make sure we are providing safe healthcare for the patients and safe healthcare for the staff. That means being able to apportion appropriately to make sure patients are having the right types of appointment.”

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