United Kingdom

GPs hit back at plans for them to see patients face to face again

Health chiefs faced a fierce backlash last night after ordering GPs to offer face-to-face appointments for patients.

Several Local Medical Committees – groups that represent grassroots GPs across the UK – wrote to members late on Friday urging them to reject the new guidance.

The letters, seen by The Mail on Sunday, call the move 'badly judged' and 'frankly ludicrous'. They also suggested that practices 'delete' the email from NHS England or 'file it as a memento to incompetence'.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association (BMA) accused civil servants of being 'tone deaf' for not recognising 'the efforts GPs were making and the stress they were feeling as a result of massive workload pressures'.

Health chiefs faced a fierce backlash last night after ordering GPs to offer face-to-face appointments for patients. Several Local Medical Committees – groups that represent grassroots GPs across the UK – wrote to members late on Friday urging them to reject the new guidance. (File image)

Doctors on social media also rounded on the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), which last weekend echoed this newspaper's concerns about policymakers trying to make 'digital-first' services normal practice.

NHS England's updated guidance means all patients will be able to request an in-person appointment with their doctor, unless they have Covid symptoms.

Telephone and online appointments – popular with many patients, who find them more efficient – will remain. But crucially, practices must respect patients' preference for face-to-face care.

RCGP chief Professor Martin Marshall said it was 'encouraging' that this left room for 'shared decision-making between GP and patient on the most appropriate method of consultation'.

Yet GPs on Twitter called the response 'poor', 'limp' and 'tepid'. One suggested doctors had been 'shafted by the college'. In an online poll, 10 per cent of respondents said they'd rather quit medicine than accept the new rules.

NHS England's updated guidance means all patients will be able to request an in-person appointment with their doctor, unless they have Covid symptoms

Insiders yesterday admitted that while the vast majority of GPs had been offering face-to-face appointments, there were 'pockets' where practices had 'basically shut up shop'. 

A source said: 'The NHS guidance was blunt – most of us have been offering a good service in really difficult circumstances. People are feeling besieged as it is, and this went down badly.'

Evidence suggests that phone and online consultation forms have actually increased GPs' workloads, and many are suffering from long days of back-to-back telephone appointments.

The insider added: 'We know there are pockets of poor practice, where doctors have basically shut up shop, and you do get lazy GPs who'd rather do everything over the phone or on email. The new orders were aimed at this minority, but were sent to everyone, and that was upsetting.' The policy shift is a victory for this newspaper's campaign to Let Us See Our GPs Face To Face.

Until last week, there were concerns that policymakers intended to extend digital services, despite their unpopularity.

But on Thursday, there was an apparent change of heart.

Tory MP Dr Dan Poulter, a psychiatrist, said: 'Great credit should go to The Mail on Sunday for highlighting this very important issue. This campaign will help improve the quality of care patients receive and could help save lives.'

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday's Medical Minefield podcast, GP leader Professor Dame Clare Gerada, a pioneer of the virtual appointment eConsult system, said the real problem was understaffing that existed before the pandemic.

'We don't have enough GPs,' she said. 'Investment [over the past year] has gone almost entirely into hospitals. GPs are the front door of the health service. And if we don't protect the front door, then I'm afraid all of us are going to suffer.'

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