Thousands of patients could be put at serious risk of life-threatening or life-changing health problems as they wait several weeks to see family doctors, a leading GP has warned.
Surgeries have been struggling to keep waiting times down during the busy winter period, with some patients waiting two or three weeks to see GPs for non-urgent matters, such as suspect lumps or bleeding problems, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard said waiting times could rise to three or four weeks and such delays may cause non-urgent conditions to become acute problems.
Stokes-Lampard raised particular concerns over the tens of thousands of people with chronic and long-term health conditions, such as heart problems and diabetes, who may be neglected because GPs had to “firefight” patients with urgent issues. The consequences for people with such conditions could be “very serious indeed”, she added.
The senior GP, based in Lichfield, Staffordshire, said she was “profoundly concerned” about how general practice would cope over winter when there is higher demand for NHS services.
Although seasonal woes have been a longstanding problem in the NHS, Stokes-Lampard said attention had been focused on the impact on hospital care, when every peak in workload in A&E departments was magnified at GP surgeries, which were “already skating on thin ice”.
“If you’ve got to deal with people who are acutely sick on the day, because people need help, then chronic disease management will disappear,” she said.
Asked if patients with non-urgent needs would be forced to wait weeks to see their GP, she said: “Absolutely. If it’s already taking some patients two to three weeks to get in to see a GP for the non-urgent stuff, then by the time three to four weeks has passed, the non-urgent stuff may be becoming urgent.
“With lumps or bleeding problems or things that could be signs of serious disease, my profound concern is that people will delay seeking help for things that could potentially be life-threatening or life-changing if they are not tackled swiftly. Extended waiting times pose a serious risk because of all those unintended consequences.
“If we rein back on all that preventative care and all that chronic disease management because we are too busy firefighting the urgent stuff, the knock-on consequences could take years to manifest, but they will be very serious indeed. And that would be a tragedy.”
The shadow health minister, Julie Cooper, said the situation was extremely worrying and “the government needs to wake up to the fact that there is a full-scale crisis in the NHS at every level”.
“We have heard a lot about the shortage of beds and waiting times in accident and emergency departments, but there has been little acknowledgement of the pressures facing GP surgeries,” she said.
“The truth is that they are overwhelmed by ever increasing demand. Add to this a chronic shortage of GPs and a crisis in recruitment, and the result is a service that is at breaking point.”
An NHS England spokesman said: “Over the Christmas and new year period, the top priority has to be medical emergencies, but the RCGP are right to remind everyone of what they describe as the ‘most phenomenal success story of the NHS’ – every day tens of thousands of people do not die who would have died 20 to 30 years ago, because we are quietly saving them from having heart attacks, strokes and complications of diabetes.
“That’s why GP services are on track to receive an extra £2.4bn in real terms investment by 2020 to build on this track record of success and expand access to convenient appointments throughout the week.”