Patients with life-threatening conditions have been left waiting on the phone to see a doctor at a medical practice in Wokingham.
A woman receiving post-cancer treatment and an 84-year-old man who was subsequently rushed to hospital after waiting outside Wokingham Medical Centre are among those affected by large waiting times and frustrating appointment booking systems.
Hordes of patients registered at the Wokingham Medical Centre (WMC) have contacted The Wokingham Paper this week, most of whom have found it increasingly difficult to book an appointment with a GP.
With over 164,000 people currently registered across the borough’s 13 GP practices, resources are in heavy demand.
Local resident, Jane Thomas (whose name has been changed for privacy), believes that the service provided by WMC isn’t set up for patients with ongoing medical needs.
The 35-year-old had breast cancer five years ago, and has since had multiple surgeries alongside a thyroid condition.
She said: “I have to have an injection every 12 weeks as part of post-cancer hormone suppression treatment. This is time critical and so has to happen as close as possible to 12 weeks.
“However Wokingham Medical Practice doesn’t put more than four weeks of appointments on the system at one time, so there is no way of booking my next injection at the time I am having an appointment.
Because the booking system isn’t working for thse who need ongoing medical treatment. Ms Thomas sometimes has to use A&E if she cannot get a time-appropriate appointment for her post-cancer hormone suppression treatment.
Dr Helen Rutherford, GP at Wokingham Medical Centre and Medical Director for the Wokingham Division of Modality Partnership said: “At Wokingham Medical Centre, patient care is our number one priority.
“We appreciate that in certain instances being able to book an appointment three months’ in advance would be beneficial. For example, where patients need a regular appointment for a time-critical medication to be administered.
“However, the reason that we reduced this to four weeks ahead was due to the significant numbers of patients not coming to their advance booked appointments.
“The numbers of “Did Not Attend” were on average 450 appointments a month, and by having a four weekly booking process this number has been reduced to an average of 216 missed appointments a month.”
Telephone wait times
Local resident Karen Knight is currently undergoing physiotherapy from a private healthcare provider, and is in need of an MRI scan, for which she requires a GP referral.
She said: “I have tried unsuccessfully to get a doctors appointment for over a week, and was looking to book an appointment for up to a months time, all to no avail.
“I was religiously calling each morning at 8am on the dot, and my place in the queue varied from 41st to 35th each time.
“Sometimes I was holding on the line for over an hour and then before getting through, I was getting cut off on the majority of occasions.
When Mrs Knight eventually got through to reception, she was told that there were no pre-bookable appointments, even for one month in advance.
“The reception staff’s response to my concern and disappointment with not getting an appointment was to say that I need to call tomorrow,” said Mrs Knight. “Tomorrow will be no different, as I know from past experience.”
The current system in place requires patients to either ring first thing, when the centre opens at 8am, or to queue outside from 7.30am to see a doctor the same day.
Ms Thomas said: “No matter how minor the issue, you have to go and stand in person for half an hour before the surgery opens to have any hope of getting seen that day”.
Dr Rutherford said: “We have reviewed and we are changing our telephone system, so it is more responsive, and will be able to recognise a caller’s details. This will help speed up the call process, so patients should have less of a wait to speak to someone.
Effect on the elderly
The most common concern that patients of WMC have is the difficulty in obtaining appointments and how this is affecting the elderly.
Expressing concern for her stepfather, Sue Woodason said: “My 84-year-old stepfather was very poorly last Tuesday. He phoned the Wokingham Medical Centre at 8am and was 40th in the queue.
“He made the decision to get to the practice and was able to get an appointment that day so he waited in the surgery. When he finally saw a GP they immediately phoned for an ambulance to take him to A&E. He then was left sitting in the A&E waiting room for over six hours after initially being accessed, then waiting for results of a blood test.”
A spokesperson from Modality Partnership said: “We have introduced new ways to ensure any patient who needs a same-day appointment for an urgent need can be seen either in our acute care clinic or can receive an online consultation with a GP via our Push Doctor service, this has helped to alleviate some of the pressure.”
However, WMC isn’t the only surgery coming under fire for their appointment wait times.
Resident Catherine Smith who attends Brookside Practice, Earley said that she often experienced a four-week wait time to see a named GP, after having a double transplant.
Yet, she attributes the difficulties in getting a GP appointment to failings by the national Government in their provisions for the NHS.
Ms Smith said: “Currently, too few GPs are trying to take on ever-increasing numbers of patients to the detriment of their own well being.
“I believe the problem is caused by successive governments not training sufficient numbers of doctors nor providing suitable conditions for them to work in when qualified. This includes all hospital doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.
For Ms Smith, not being able to see a named GP had almost life-threatening consequences.
“There have been occasions, within the NHS system, where a doctor has tried to give me medications that are banned for me,” she said. “This is why a named GP is so important.
“Not every sick person is able or well enough to inform a strange doctor of all their relevant conditions. And not every doctor has the time to read every patient’s relevant details due to the increased pressure they are under.”
Access to a named GP was also addressed by the Modality Partnership. Dr Rutherford said: “The national shortage of GPs also means we have to change the way patients access appointments. This means that seeing your named GP at a time that you request is not always possible.
“As a practice we actually offer 4 more appointments per 1,000 patients a week, than the nationally recommended figure of 72 appointments per 1,000 patients, and we recognise we need to respond further to the increasing demand for appointments.
“We have started to introduce new alternative healthcare practitioners, who have their own particular areas of expertise. Often these practitioners are better placed to see and treat patients for certain conditions than GPs.
“We want to ensure that our patients see the right clinician, the first time. Our new roles at Wokingham Medical Centre include two GP Pharmacists and two Urgent Care Practitioners who work alongside our well-established nursing team that includes two Nurse Practitioners. Two new Physician’s Associates are due to start with us in November.
“In addition to this, we are continuing to advertise to recruit new GPs, but sadly so far, we have been unable to fill the vacancies.”
A spokesperson from The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust said: “We are aware of the concerns raised by patients regarding telephone access and waits for appointments and are looking into these issues with the practice concerned.
“In Wokingham as elsewhere in the country, demand for GP appointments is rising and there are challenges in recruiting and retaining doctors and practice nurses.
“In response to this, practices across Wokingham Borough have been introducing changes to improve access, such as longer opening hours and new on-the-day clinics.
“Practices are also working together through new Primary Care Networks (clusters of neighbouring GP surgeries which have grouped together to form a new-style healthcare network in their local neighbourhoods) to bring in new staff such as paramedics and clinical pharmacists.
“The CCG is working with the new Primary Care Networks and with Wokingham Borough Council to consider what else can be done to improve access for local residents.”
The lucky ones
However, not all residents of the Wokingham Borough are being hit equally by demands on their local GP.
Wargrave resident Marjie Thorn has a positive experience at her surgery.
“I can call at 8am, Monday to Friday and almost always get an appointment for the same day,” she said. “For appointments that aren’t urgent, there’s usually a waiting time of a week or two, depending on what it’s for.”
Mary Perkins Crowthorne resident, said: “We are lucky in Crowthorne. If you’re at Ringmead Medical Practice you can use the extended hours service run by Berkshire Primary Care which operates 365 days a year.”
Currently, Wargrave surgery has 7,113 registered patients. This is compared to WMC which has 22,872, Brookside, with 27,373 and Ringmead, which has 22,584 registered patients.
Dr Rutherford said: “We are listening carefully to the feedback about access and availability of appointments. However, like many other GP practices up and down the country, we are struggling with an ongoing national shortage of doctors. This is unfortunately not a unique issue for Wokingham; nor a new problem in primary care, and sadly cannot be instantly resolved. Our teams are working very hard, under extreme pressure to respond to the demand for appointments.”
As the population of Wokingham Borough grows year on year, a question arises as to whether the 13 GP practices are able to match the patient demand, and how this issue can be addressed on a national level.