GP access: ‘Need for uniformity’ in telephone systems says NI Health Dept.

The Department of Health has said it is working with GPs to standardise consultation and booking administration.

There have been numerous reports in Derry and across the north over recent years of people unable to get through to GP practices, or being placed in long queues. There have also been reports of problems securing face-to-face appointments.

The issue of access at some GP practices was raised recently by Derry & Strabane politicians in the Council chamber. At a meeting, Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly warned that some people locally are having to ring over 100 times to try to book an appointment at their GP surgery and are even turning to dangerous self-medication. Other Councillors also concurred that there was a deepening crisis, while stressing that this was absolutely not the fault of the doctors themselves.

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Responding to queries over whether the Department was reviewing GP access in the north, a spokesperson pointed out that GPs have been under ‘significant pressure’ in recent years and highlighted the impact telephone appointments were having: “Telephone triage provides a highly effective way to offer care to patients but we are very aware of the frustration experienced by those who can’t get through to GP practices. We will keep the situation under review. General Practice has been under significant pressure since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Making greater use of technology to help manage the demand on Primary Care services has been a priority for the Department of Health for many years, as articulated in Health and Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of the GP telephone consultation model, as it allowed GP services to remain open to their patients in a way that was safe for patients, GPs and Practice Staff.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland said standarisation of access is being looked at with GPs.

“The GP telephone-based consultation model has allowed a greater number of patients to be seen than would otherwise have been the case, with approximately 200,000 patient consultations happening on a weekly basis. Crucially, the telephone consultation model allows GPs to make robust clinical assessments of their patients’ needs over the telephone, to determine the most appropriate course of action for that patient. Where a patient clinically requires a face to face consultation that can be provided.”

Under the GP telephone consultation model, the majority of patients get same-day access to their GP, the department spokesperson said, adding: “However, it is recognised that some patients have experienced issues with accessing their GP by telephone, and also that there is a need for uniformity and consistency in the service across Northern Ireland. GP Practices in Northern Ireland are responsible for providing their own telephony systems. The Department of Health has made significant investment of £1.7m in each of the past two years to facilitate Practices to improve their telephony systems, and to enable them to recruit additional staff to operate the service.

“The Department is working with Practices to standardise the administration around consultations and bookings, and to share best practice to help improve the patient experience when accessing the service. The Department of Health will continue to work in partnership with GPs to continuously review how services are provided, to ensure that that everyone in NI can continue to access high quality, safe services.”