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21st century healthcare, 19th century access

Why, in this high-tech era, are people queueing in the rain for a GP appointment?

I saw a picture recently of at least 28 people queuing in the rain outside of a GP surgery in Northamptonshire. These patients were queuing outside the surgery before it opened because they found it impossible to secure an appointment another way. Those in the queue included a patient with breast cancer – unacceptable, unacceptable for any patient.

Let's remind ourselves that this is 2019 not 1919. We are in the 21stcentury. Seeing this made me question 'Chapter 1: A New Service Model for the 21st Century' of the NHS Long Term Plan, where it states that compared with many other countries in the world, our national health service is already well-designed. Our NHS, the Long Term Plan tells us, has high levels of patient satisfaction, generally improving outcomes, strong overall efficiency, and relatively high levels of care coordination. Try telling this to those patients queuing in the rain to make an appointment.

Is it me or is standing outside in the rain Dickensian? This is nowhere near what patients should expect of a world class health service. GP surgeries should be able to offer patients an appointment to see a GP or another healthcare professional quickly, if necessary. This clearly was not the case for these patients in Northamptonshire.

Booking a GP appointment should be easier than this, millions of pounds have been put into developing new ways to book. We have the technology for patients to book an appointment via the surgery’s website but, clearly not at this surgery.

There are many reason why this sorry state of affairs has arisen and those staff working at this surgery (and many others) will bear the brunt of the patient’s ire, striving to offer a service is first class. There will however be no easy remedy for this malady as our NHS has experienced the first sustained fall in GP numbers for 50 years, and this is the key reason why those patients experienced real and unacceptable difficulties in making appointments.

General practice cannot be permitted to fail as it is the cornerstone of our NHS. Those nurses and doctors who offer care to people need more support. Steps need to be taken as a matter of urgency to improve access, with more GPs being trained and additional nurses and support staff recruited to work together with them. Get our health service right at this level, and everything else will follow.

Ian Peate is Head of School of Health Studies, Gibraltar; and Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal of Nursing