'If you can sit in a pub or go shopping, you should be able to see a doctor': GPs deny claims lack of access is leading to Chesterfield A&E surge
With the relentless surge in patients caused by the second wave of the pandemic finally coming to an end, staff at Chesterfield Royal Hospital might have been hoping for a return to some sort of normality this spring.
In the dark days of January and February senior hospital staff described their teams as ‘physically and emotionally drained’ as they operated at capacity through some of the worst moments of the crisis.
However, in recent weeks a different surge of patients is causing a whole new set of problems for the hospital.
Staff on the emergency department (ED) have been forced to issue a plea to residents to ‘think carefully’ about attending, and to remind people the department is for those with ‘potentially life threatening conditions’ and not ‘minor cuts, headaches, neck pain or if you generally feel unwell’.
More than 1,100 patients attended the ED over just four days last week, and a further 550 descended on the department on Monday and Tuesday this week.
Although the reasons for this surge in ED patients appear to be complex, and due to a range of changes in the NHS brought about by Covid, many residents have pointed the finger of blame firmly at family doctors.
Reaction to our stories about the ED issues overwhelmingly blame a lack of access to GP surgeries – claims strongly denied by doctors who say they have adapted to the extraordinary demands of the pandemic.
At least one Chesterfield surgery has also been forced to ask its patients to be ‘kind to our staff’.
Brimington Surgery texted on Friday to patients: “We are currently experiencing unprecedented demand and are aware that this is a national issue for General Practice.
"We ask that you are kind to our staff and thank you for your support and patience.”
Chesterfield resident Donna Sheil told the Derbyshire Times about her recent experience of trying to see a doctor with an ‘emergency’ but not life threatening condition.
“I rang the surgery at 8am and could not get through,” she said. “When I did manage to get through at 8.35am it had taken 70 calls.
"I asked for a GP appointment to be told all appointments were allocated to patients and there were none left.”
A nurse practitioner called Donna later that day.
"I said I need to see a GP as I didn’t think it was a nurse practitioner’s job to diagnose my problem, as they are not as qualified as a GP.
"She then said if I wanted to see a GP I would have to wait maybe a week as they are really busy.
"I don’t want to go to the hospital as they are busy enough and my condition is not life threatening.”
Donna’s story is similar to that of many other residents who have contacted us – either unable to get through on surgery switchboards or unable to see a doctor face-to-face when they do.
Carly Blant posted on our Facebook page: “You can’t even get in to be seen. You struggle to get through on the phones.
"If you can sit in a pub and go shopping, then you should be able to see a doctor.”
Sabrina Ann Smith said: “Just to get to speak to a receptionist is a saga in itself. I've tried to get my mother seen in person for an assessment but they've brushed off my request and decided to give her pills instead.”
Chesterfield woman Lisa Hartley said: “I am disgusted that they have been allowed to still carry on like this, especially as I'm a key worker and we have had to work through out the pandemic.”
GPs say much of this criticism is unfair.
Dr Steve Rossi, North East Derbyshire PCN clinical director and a GP at The Springs Health Centre in Clowne, said: "People will, on occasion, have difficulty getting through to surgeries but it must be remembered we are currently vaccinating the whole population twice.
"This is putting pressures on GPs but we are still seeing patients as well. Surgeries are performing as they have in the past but we are carrying out the vaccination programme on top of this.
"I don’t know of any practices in Derbyshire which are not working as hard as they were before the pandemic, and most are working harder.”
Dr Rossi says many patients are pleased that GPs have found different ways to work amid the pandemic.
"Many people like the fact they can use text, send us photos and get sick notes without sitting in a doctor’s waiting room,” he said.
"There will be changes going forward but we won’t be going back to the old way of working as we now have the tools to make the system work more efficiently.”
This week national newspapers reported that doctors have been advised to discourage face-to-face patient appointments in order to promote the use of virtual consultations.
New guidance for the NHS states that practices are to ‘increase significantly the use of online consultations, as part of embedding total triage’.
"It is not right for everyone, particularly elderly patients, and we do need to be mindful of that,” Dr Rossi added.
"A key issue is those staying away because they believe the NHS is closed or they shouldn’t see a doctor. This is something we all need to address.”
Dr Rossi believes much of the pressure on A&E departments is instead due to delays in secondary NHS services getting their clinics back up and running again.
"Some specialities have reacted superbly to the pandemic but others have been more sluggish, particularly with regard to mental health services.”
Joined Up Care Derbyshire, which brings together NHS services in the county, said: “Patients should continue to call their practice if they are ill, or have concerns about things they are worried might be a sign of cancer so that these can be checked out.”