The frustration of GPs leaving us hanging on the telephone…

Philip O’Neill is a retired Civil Servant from Belfast.

I am a big supporter of our doctors, nurses and health care staff and I am very aware of them having to make do with fewer and fewer resources. However, I was not fully aware of the implications of recent decisions on phone preferences rather than face to face consultations. This did not hit home until I had cause to call my local surgery. I had an ongoing issue for which the local GP referred me to ENT 6 years ago. Around 7 weeks ago I got a letter referring me to a private clinic on the Lisburn Road, you know the nice ones that offer free coffee etc. Anyhow, I got a full checkup and the consultant give me a full assessment and said he would send a report to my GP.

I gave it a few weeks and then tried contacting my GP for results and advice, this is where the fun started. Firstly it took me several calls over several days to get through to my surgery. I then got the preamble. “if you are phoning for an emergency please hang up and call 079***********,” a typical mobile number long and difficult to remember, in other words, if you have an emergency go somewhere else. Surely this could be preprogrammed into the system by allowing you to “press 2” or whatever to put you through.

Then it advised what to do if you needed a repeat prescription etc. Then it got to my bit. “if you are phoning about test results please phone between 2.30 and 3.30″ as this was 11.30 I hung up to try again later. After several more attempts, it was the following afternoon before I got through again, this time at 2.45 so within the required time zone. ” I am looking the results of tests I had several weeks ago”. “We can’t tell you those, you will need to speak to a doctor.” “OK can I speak with a doctor”, “no, you have to make an appointment and they will call you back”. “OK, can I make an appointment for a callback?” “No, you have to call between 8.55 and 9.30 for a call back”. So I tried the following morning and could not get through. I tried the next morning and got through at 9.20. “Can I book a call back from the doctor”, “Sorry, but all the callbacks for today are full, you will have to book for Monday”, “Great, can I book a call back for Monday”. And you guessed it, “No, you will have to call back on Monday”.

So I now have an issue that has been bothering me for years, the NHS to their credit has referred me to an expensive consultant to sort that issue out, however, I am no further on as I cannot get to see or to speak with my GP. This is nuts.

If I want a dental checkup I can phone the dentist and arrange an appointment for weeks or months in advance. My physio even has his appointments online so you can book without even having to disturb him. Booking systems are cheap as chips at present and appear to work well. My dad is in his 80s and finds them to be no issue.

While this change to dealing with patients over the phone has now been widely introduced, would it be so challenging to have some technology to support the process and allow it to function better and perhaps benefit patients?