Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, was speaking amid warnings from health trusts of intense pressure and long waiting times at emergency departments.
Dr Stout, along with Dr Laurence Dorman from the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, said general practice was also under intense pressure with around 200,000 patients per week seeking care.
Both senior doctors said GPs were relying on remote consultations and, whilst acknowledging some patients are frustrated with the arrangements both highlighted the benefits of that approach.
Dr Dorman said: “All parts of of the health service are getting pressure like never before - both GP and ED.
“General practice are getting 200,000 contacts per week - that’s 10% of the population.
“People are complaining they’re not seeing their GP but it’s really important that people realise that when they speak to their GP on the telephone, that is their consultation.
“Consultations are starting on the telephone. We are bringing around a third in for face-to-face while the rest are being sorted out over the phone, maybe with prescriptions going straight to the chemist.
“Now, some people feel they aren’t getting the full service unless they see you face-to-face but we are doing what we can, and it is giving many people a quicker service.”#
Dr Stout said: “Of that 200,000 – which is just an incredible number to be trying to deal with – a third of those are converted to face-to-face appointments.
“It’s big numbers. We just can’t escape that sheer volume.”
He added: “Almost universally everything is phone first. People misinterpret that as not getting an appointment with their GP but they are. They may get a telephone consultation, they may get a video consultation, they may be asked to send in pictures or, if appropriate, they may be asked to come in face-to-face.
“This works brilliantly.
“My own practice has done this for many years, pre-Covid. What it means is there are a substantial number of people who just need advice over the phone. You say you will leave a prescription for them, or you give them advice and say you will follow up.”
On the impact of pressures facing emergency medicine, Dr Stout said: “We have horror stories in general practice about people not going to an emergency department when they need to go.
“If you have a suspect heart attack, or a fracture, or some other acute fracture you have to go (to an emergency department).
“I am frightened about some of the cases we are starting to see that are being put off going when they really, really should be going.
“They are being put off because they are worried about the sitution at the emergency departments.”