The doctor won't see you now... Patients report hour-long waits for new supersurgery
- Credit: Archant/Jennifer Coe
Desperate GP patients have found themselves resorting to under-pressure A&Es as phone queues for a new Ipswich super-surgery spiral out of control.
Chesterfield Drive, Norwich Road and Deben Road GP practices in west Ipswich merged to become Cardinal Medical Practice earlier this month and since then scores of patients have reported problems accessing appointments.
It is now the biggest GP surgery in Ipswich with an estimated 30,000 patients on its books - and on Monday health leaders warned an influx of an extra 500 people from the now-closed Barham and Claydon surgery is heaping even more pressure on the facility.
This newspaper was told by officials ahead of publication that just five full-time equivalent GPs will provide care at the surgery, which would have meant that each was responsible for almost 6,000 patients, the second-highest ratio in the county.
Dr Jordan Nye, a GP at the practice, said in an updated statement to this newspaper on Friday that they were now up to 7.5 FTE GPs, giving a ratio of around 4,000 patients per doctor.
Surgery chiefs and the area’s clinical commissioning group said that, “like all other GP practices”, they are battling “very high demand” - adding that extra staff had been drafted in to answer phone calls.
The area's MP, Dr Dan Poulter, has received such a high volume of concerns from his constituents that he has penned a letter to the surgery urging improvements to the phone system.
We tried to call at 9.30am and were told we had 30 callers ahead of us.
Jennifer Coe, 28, had been becoming increasingly worried about her 20-month-old son Alfred and phoned Cardinal Medical Practice for an urgent, on-the-day appointment after he refused to eat for two days.
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The mum says it took an hour to get through, by which time she was told there were no appointments and was asked to fill out an E-consult (email consultation) form - which she would hear back from by 6.30pm at the latest that day.
When she hadn’t heard, she called the surgery again but was on hold for 45 minutes before being cut off.
“It was a nightmare trying to get through - I ended up taking him to A&E,” she added.
“After nearly seven hours we got home with a diagnosis of a severe throat infection and an acute asthma, viral wheeze - he’s never had that issue before.”
Ms Coe said she understands Ipswich Hospital’s A&E, which last week recorded its busiest ever day, is under intense strain but felt she had no other option - adding that many in the waiting room told her they were also there because they could not see their GP.
“Alfred hadn’t eaten in two days, to me that was a massive concern,” she added. “He was crying out in pain.
“We’re not doctors ourselves as parents, we try and do the best for our children but we kind of hope we can get that professional support.
“It’s not about the individual GPs or staff, it’s about the fact they appear to have so little resource or help.”
Dr Balaji Donepudi, a GP at the practice, acknowledged there have been technical issues with phone lines but said the merger, made official on July 6-7, happened with the backdrop of "huge" pressures on the NHS in the past 18 months.
“We’ve been working in the background with recruitment for this merger, identifying the gaps, and looking to make care more accessible for patients," he said.
Recognising challenges with recruiting doctors, he added: "Because we’ve been struggling to get GPs we’ve been looking at skill mix, hiring nurse practitioners, practice nurses, trainee nurses, paramedics, and pharmacy technicians."
Patients have been extremely supportive throughout the merging process, surgery chiefs added.
“Staff are working incredibly hard and patients are encouraged to use E-consult if they are able to," a spokesman said.
“Everyone at the practice is doing their very best to support the wellbeing of patients.”
One patient, 69-year-old John Rose, has been at Deben Road for several years.
He claimed the booking system had “gone to pot” and became so frustrated with waiting on the phone that he went down to the surgery, which was locked, last week in a bid to get seen.
“I managed to get in behind a lady who was speaking to a receptionist with her child and through speaking to them I got a telephone appointment for 10 days’ time.
"It was for the results of an echocardiogram that I had maybe three weeks ago. I’ve only just got the results from that.
“The whole thing seems to have gone to pot in the last three weeks. It shouldn’t be that I only got an appointment by going down there.”
In response, NHS bosses said that for some time Deben patients have been getting seen at Chesterfield Drive or Norwich Road, with all patients written to about this change.
Dr Donepudi said that the merger comes at a time of great change in primary care and the NHS as a whole.
"Throughout the pandemic staff, including the GPs, have been affected," he said.
"Now that the hospital is opening up our staff have had planned operations and planned sickness.
He added: "It’s a double-edged sword - it’s good that everything is opening up and our staff are able to carry on with life as normal, but that is impacting on staff sickness levels as well."
The practice's manager is understood to have been off sick during the official merging which may have delayed some responses to patients.
Bosses also said the closure of Claydon and Barham had a "massive effect" on Cardinal Medical Practice with staff working weekends to register new patients.
Phone waits ‘greatly concerning’, warns MP
Dr Poulter, MP for Central Suffolk and north Ipswich, is now demanding action from the surgery and CCG to tackle the issue - adding that it is “vital” residents are able to easily access their local GP practice.
In a letter to the practice shared with this newspaper, Dr Poulter said he has received several complaints from constituents who are “deeply concerned” about phone waiting times.
He wrote that patients will routinely wait on the phone for more than 45 minutes before their call is answered, and once they have spoken to a staff member they are often not guaranteed an appointment within 36 to 48 hours.
The Conservative MP, who is also an NHS doctor, described the issue as “greatly concerning” particularly to older residents.
“It is vital that residents are able to easily access their local GP practice without barriers to accessing healthcare and I would be grateful if you can respond to this letter with the steps that you will take to improve the appointment booking system for residents,” he added.
- Are you struggling to access your GP? Email firstname.lastname@example.org