GP referral delays: have consultants found the answer?

Posted on: 10 February 2014 by 50connect editorial

Health concerns cause stress - especially when you can't see your GP. When you're worried about your health, you want to be seen by the right person as soon as possible ... and now you can be!

Waiting roomThe GP surgery is the traditional gateway to getting an appointment with a specialist consultant. As pressures on GPs increase, the fear is that it will become harder than ever to see your family doctor to get the ball rolling with treatment. A new consultant-led subscription service could make the whole process of accessing specialist help much easier.

Limited resources…

Pressure is on GPs – which means that patients (as well as the doctors themselves) are feeling the strain. Money is at the heart of the issue, with the Royal College of General Practitioners commenting that GP services across England are facing a £400m financial black hole due to the funding cuts of the last three years.

The RCGP states that ultimately it is patients who are losing out in the form of increased waiting times, less face time with doctors and cuts to services such as counseling and physiotherapy. A poll of doctors taken last year showed that almost half of GPs had already cut back on the range of services provided to patients while 80 per cent no longer felt they had sufficient resources to provide high-quality care.

The prognosis is poor for 2014. Responding to the Chancellor, George Osborne’s recent comments about the need for further significant spending cuts in the future, GPC negotiator Dr. Dean Marshall spoke of the way in which cuts to benefits have left GPs ‘”inundated” with the fall-out. Further cuts would lead to “even more demands on GPs’ time by those in distress”.

It seems it could be harder than ever to get an appointment with your GP in 2014.

An outdated system?

When a patient knows that he or she needs to see a specialist (if only for peace of mind), having to go through the GP to access that help can seem like a pointless and frustrating hurdle.

Arranging an appointment with a GP can be a challenge in itself. Each surgery has its own way of organising patients’ appointments but almost all systems involve patients having to try and make contact over the telephone with the surgery’s reception. With telephones manned during surgery hours only and with over-stretched surgery staff often unable to get to the phone if they’re covering other tasks, it’s unsurprising that it’s often so difficult to speak to someone. In an age when most people are familiar with online booking and instant access to services, trying to get an appointment to see your GP can seem like a throwback to a bygone era.

Worryingly, it seems that the process is enough to put some people off seeking medical help altogether. One survey from Cancer Research UK suggested that the hassle of making an appointment could be the biggest reason why people delay going to see their doctor. It was cited more often than both wasting the doctor’s time and worry about what the doctor might find.    

Getting an early appointment for a time that’s convenient is the next hurdle faced by patients. Last year’s report from the Patients’ Association suggested that around 1 in 3 people are unable to book a GP appointment at least 48 hours in advance and 1 in 5 had to take time off work to attend. Of those, over half had to take a full day or longer off work in order to get to the appointment.

It is frustrating enough to go through this process where a patient has a simple problem that can be dealt with there and then by the GP. It is doubly frustrating (and worrying) for those patients for whom visiting their GP is merely a means to an end for gaining access to the person they really want to see; i.e. a specialist consultant.

The solution?

A network of consultants at the heart of the NHS may have the answer. Bruce Braithwaite, a consultant vascular surgeon sums up the situation faced by many patients in need of a specialist consultation: “If you’re ill, you want to be seen by the right person as soon as possible. Everything in the current system seems to prevent you doing that.”

The new subscription service is designed to get to the heart of this problem. It bypasses the GP referral stage; removing the worry and frustration of having to wait to see a consultant as well as helping to relieve some of the strain on the NHS by reducing unnecessary GP appointments.

The model is simple: if you have a health concern, you pick up the telephone to make use of a system designed to offer rapid access to exactly the right specialist for your condition. Patients get to see the right consultant quickly. What’s more, patients aren’t faced with the type of barriers presented by private health insurers – such as age limits and refusals to treat pre-existing conditions.

To find out more about this new service, visit

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