'We cannot see 600 people a day' - Suffolk GP on face-to-face appointment pressure

Senior partner Dr Havard said Saxmundham Health is aiming to vaccinate the next age group ahead of schedule

Senior partner Dr Havard said Saxmundham Health is aiming to vaccinate the next age group ahead of schedule - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

A Suffolk GP who has worked at a local surgery for 35 years has described the challenges family doctors face amid soaring demand.

Dr John Havard, 63, who is senior partner at Saxmundham Health in Lambsale Meadow, says the four care navigators at his practise are receiving 500 to 600 calls a day from patients. 

He said: "We have the same capacity we had before Covid, with six GPS, but demand for appointments is massive, it's never been harder. We are having to speak to more people and decide who needs to come in.

"In my view telephone triage is here to stay because it has positive attractions for patients and GPs. We have flexibility because times are not rigidly booked – clearly suicidal patients need more time than viral infections and we can bring patients down immediately if we need to. This way of working feels different to GPs and patients alike but it has great merit."

In a letter to this newspaper Dr Havard spoke about the issues he and his colleagues are facing: "We hate having to sit in front of our computers doing telephone or video consultations because we crave the human contact - but GPs have been forced into this situation.

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"Hospital consultant staff have expanded massively over my 35 years as a GP, whereas primary care has not. There were four orthopaedic surgeons at Ipswich Hospital when I worked there and now there are 28. 

"As workload, patient numbers and complexity has increased in primary care, there has been no similar response. As GPs try to manage the holistic needs of patients with multiple chronic diseases, mental health and social problems in a 10 minute consultation the task all too often feels impossible and burn out sets in." 

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The GP who has been working at Saxmundham Health since 1986 said he knows of fellow GPs that have retired as pressures of the job piled up. 

Dr Havard believes that his surgery will never return to the volume of face-to-face consultations they had pre-Covid and says that general practise needs to be made more attractive so more doctors join, adding: "We were promised 6,000 more GPs, there are now less than when the promises were made.

"Patients are fired up and expect to see the doctor today. However the doctor may not be the best person to see you. We cannot see 600 people a day anyway and mental health nurses, nurse practitioners or physios may be more appropriate for your needs." 

Dr John Harvard, of Saxmundham Health, praised Beatrice's efforts

Dr John Harvard, of Saxmundham Health, praised Beatrice's efforts - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Despite the struggles over the last 18 months Saxmundham Health has had one of the highest vaccination numbers in the country, with Dr Havard saying: "The period has been the hardest in my 35 years but also the most rewarding.

"Since Covid erupted it has been stunning how well primary care across the land has responded. We've had several weeks of working seven days a week at Saxmundham but there is only so much you can do. 

"Patients have been fantastic, everyone pulled together, it was hard work but really rewarding." 

A spokesperson for the NHS in the East of England said: “All GP practices are providing face-to-face as well as telephone and online appointments and continuing to offer all of these consultation methods is part of making primary care as accessible as possible to everyone.

“Record numbers of people are now training to become GPs, with up to 4,000 new starters this year and the NHS invested £270m to expand general practice capacity during the pandemic on top of rising investment over the last five years.”

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