DUP MP urges doctors to ‘rethink’ phone first system

A DUP MP has urged doctors to “rethink” their decision to retain the ‘phone first’ system for GP surgeries amid “deep concern” from the public about accessing healthcare.

Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart said she has written to the Royal College of GPs — a body representing the views of doctors — to urge a rethink and to the outgoing Health Minister Robin Swann to ask him to intervene.

The Royal College of GPs confirmed last week that the ‘phone first’ system introduced during the early stages of the coroanvirus pandemic is here to stay.

The head of the Royal College in Northern Ireland, Dr Laurence Dorman said during a recent BBC interview that he is aware of problems with the service but stressed that it is helping doctors meed the demand from patients.

GP consultation

Ms Lockhart, in a statement, said: “This unilateral decision by the Royal College of GPs is deeply concerning. There is great public unease and dissatisfaction with the ‘Phone First’ system. I have had accounts from constituents where they have had to ring 200-300 times to have a conversation with a practice receptionist. Many are then told to ring back the next day, as appointments have all been taken. This merry-go-round can last for days, all the while the patient’s health can be deteriorating and anxiety increasing. It is not the fault of the staff who are doing an amazing job under intense pressure but they have been placed in this position.”

She continued: “Last week it was revealed that one third of all cancers in Britain are diagnosed at Accident and Emergency. That is a startling statistic. I have a great concern that with a ‘phone first’ system now in place across A&E in Northern Ireland, and a ‘phone first’ system being made permanent at GP surgeries, those with symptoms — often what can appear innocuous — will miss early diagnosis.

“So much emphasis is now being placed upon the patient to effectively communicate their concerns and symptoms, and the reality is that this is difficult for many people over the phone.”

She added: “I do want to pay tribute to those GPs who are meeting patients face to face, and resuming normal practice procedures. We cannot forget that many frontline healthcare workers, many of whom are the lowest paid, have had close contact face to face interaction with patients throughout the pandemic. We need GPs to join with their colleagues in getting back to face to face appointments too. I have written to the Health Minister and Royal College.”