DR. MAX PEMBERTON: As the GP crisis is laid bare…why did I even go private when I was being treated on the NHS

A few weekends ago I was working as an on-call psychiatrist at my local ER. During those twelve hours, I saw first-hand the terrible and tragic consequences of patients not being able to see their GP.

It was total chaos. There were people who were scared and in pain, many with conditions that should have been treated by their GP weeks earlier but had now escalated.

Perhaps the saddest was a woman who was brought in by her partner after a suicide attempt. She had been suffering from acute anxiety for some time after a devastating death, but simply could not get an appointment with her GP.

In desperation, her partner personally went to the doctor’s office and a Physician Associate – someone who has medical training but is not a doctor – called her and referred her to a mental health crisis team, but for some reason things turned around. team never dies. upwards.

In desperation, this distraught woman tried to commit suicide and almost succeeded. Had she been seen quickly by her GP, it is possible that she and her partner would not have suffered the trauma of her near death. She would not have been in a hospital bed, cared for by me for hours, nor would she have been detained under the Mental Health Act.

If you make an appointment to actually see a doctor, you could wait up to a month

The emergency treatment and ongoing care she will now need will cost the NHS many times more than a GP appointment would have.

Unfortunately, this situation is something that I, and other medical professionals, now see all the time. It was once the norm to have ready access to a GP, who knew you and your history, whether you were concerned or someone who only asked for help when really desperate.

But new figures show that this is now the exception. In many areas, this valuable continuity of care has been lost, and it is virtually impossible to see a doctor within a week, let alone the same one.

In some areas, one in ten patients waits longer than a month. These figures are 38 percent worse than last year, and the trajectory is only going in one direction.

A month is way too long to wait to see a doctor. What may seem like minor, niggling symptoms – a little bleeding from the back passage, a few episodes of coughing up blood, or a small lump – are sometimes a sign of something serious. If you are treated quickly, the prognosis is often good. But patients are deterred from making an appointment if they have to wait a month. They don’t want to burden a system that is clearly under such pressure. Even for those who aren’t discouraged by a long wait, things can get dramatically worse within a month — like some cancers, or, like my patient, mental health.

The result? More pain and anxiety and often a more complex and expensive treatment. Or an avoidable death.

The pandemic normalized online consultations. So instead of waiting a month to see the doctor, people are increasingly willing to pay £70 for a quick private online GP consultation.

Even though I am not in private practice – I am a lifelong NHS doctor – even I went private when he had to wait months to repair a broken ankle, and again with a serious chest infection. If I had waited for the NHS to treat me, I would not have been able to continue working, leaving my own patients unconcerned.

More and more doctors, burned out by the demands of NHS work, are turning to the private sector for better pay and conditions.

When I was in medical school, none of my fellow students admitted that they aspired to work in private practice. Many of the medical students I teach openly say this is their goal. It’s better paid—tempting if you’re in massive debt from medical school—and private practice is much more family-friendly, especially if you can just log in from home for a few hours.

Private practice is sucking in more and more doctors, creating a two-tier system in which those who can pay to see a doctor privately are treated or referred more quickly, eliminating those who have to wait weeks to see an NHS GP surpassed.

This is not the fault of GPs. Almost every NHS GP I know is on their knees, working with great dedication and under incredible pressure. But they are disillusioned and exhausted as successive NHS chiefs and governments have failed to invest sufficiently in primary care.

Instead of closing the gaps by recruiting doctors from abroad – often from developing countries where they are desperately needed – they should have trained more here.

They are now recruiting more GPs, but it takes a minimum of twelve years to train a fully qualified GP.

The relationship between GPs and their patients, the cornerstone of the NHS, is crumbling. We must prevent our healthcare system from completely collapsing.