/ Health

Is it too hard to get an appointment with your GP?

Woman sick on phone

Have you ever been stuck on the phone trying to get an appointment at your doctor’s surgery, just to find that there aren’t any available? You’re not alone – millions of us have trouble booking a slot with our GP.

In a survey of two million people during 2010, a fifth said they found it difficult to make an appointment with their GP over the phone.

The GP Patient Survey also discovered that one in five people struggled to see their doctor ‘fairly quickly’, with the main cause being a lack of available appointments.

Due to NHS targets, you should be able to get an appointment with a GP or nurse within 48 hours. But, as we all know, we’re often not that lucky.

Our 2009 investigation found that 39% of people in the UK (or around 13 million people) had to make several attempts to get through to their surgery by phone. Thankfully, the GP Patient Survey suggests that this percentage has dropped.

Knowing when to call

Most of the time, it’s about knowing when to call. I’ve always made sure to ring early in the morning to ensure a consultation on the same day. However, this also creates problems.

Almost half of the population is required to call their surgery first thing to get a slot. This influx makes it more difficult for people to get through, as they’re competing with fellow patients for a free phone line.

For instance, my friend battled to get through to her local practice last week. When she finally did, she was told that there were no appointments for the next three weeks! Of course, like most working people, she was after an evening appointment, which are a tad difficult to get hold of. Yet these are the slots that many of us want – in our 2009 survey, half of the 2,400 people we asked wanted appointments outside of 9am to 5pm.

Is the system flawed?

So do you think there is an inherent problem with the way GP appointments have to be made in the UK? Jo Webber, deputy policy director of the NHS Confederation, emphasises the importance of being able to use your GP practice:

‘Patients need to be able to access their GP easily otherwise there is a serious risk they will add to the already considerable pressures faced by A&E departments and 999 services.’

How many times have you tried unsuccessfully to get through to your GP, or been told you can only phone to book appointments at certain times of day?

Comments
Lesley Malton says:
19 August 2020

My g.p surgery has been excellent to me.I know I am very lucky.However,the rudeness of some g.p’s I have experienced at a previous surgery ten years ago,was alarming. I don’t understand why some are successful and know how to treat serious illness,and others aren’t.In these times of Covid,my current surgery offer telephone appointments,which happen within 48 hours or less,and the g.p will decide whether things need to be taken further.It is a large practice,which appears to function efficiently.I know many people who don’t receive a functional g.p service.There shouldn’t be any excuses.

I tried to get an appointment with a doctor (or at least to be able to speak to a doctor on the phone) and have been fobbed off with a nurse for a condition which is complex and potentially serious. I’ve already been prescribed something by a nurse, which has not worked. I phoned in at 8.05am as doctors’ appointments are given on a daily basis, and was told that all the doctors’ slots for today had gone. Frankly I do not believe this.

Hi Rita – If you can get another appointment with the nurse and they can see that your condition has not improved, I hope you will be referred to the GP. If not I suggest calling the NHS ‘111’ number for advice. Best of luck.

David Elliott says:
4 February 2021

Are there any NHS recomendations for GP Practices for the number of phone lines available per thousand patients for booking appointments?

I cannot find any figures, David. If possible, try booking an appointment online or ring the NHS number 111 for advice.

I think at least some GP surgeries have outsourced their admin and receptionist services to call centre companies as cost saving measures. Typically, that gives gives them plenty of phonelines but not many staff for answering them.

Our surgery has a queuing system on the telephone and I have never been further than number ten in the queue; I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes.

I know it’s not a call centre handling the calls because the staff have broad Norfolk accents.

I think our surgery line only takes 3/4 calls at a time so sometimes you will try and get only an engaged.
tone. On one occasion ,as an experiment ., I kept on trying for 73 attempts. We are not in London or any big city . Surely this system is not working. If you are told that waiting time will be 15 minutes
approx. then you can hang on and there will be an answer . Otherwise ,you are left constantly trying for hours. It is unacceptable .

That is not good, Jan. My surgery offers a limited number of appointments to see doctors and nurses online.

D Bott says:
5 March 2021

My mother is 88 and chronically unwell. She isn’t even allowed to leave a message for the gp. She just can’t get through to get an appointment, they have all gone, even telephone ones, it is shocking. My father is 89 and bedridden with Parkinson’s and his gp has not contacted him once

All I can suggest you do is to ring the NHS number 111, which is free. Best of luck.

Lorna Johnston says:
26 March 2021

Well be aware that the Torries want to privatise the NHS (like America) if that happens no-one without insurance will have health care.

I don’t think we are aware. Recent government pronouncements were about keeping more of the NHS in public hands, for example “The forthcoming health and care bill will also abolish the duty for local NHS bodies to put contracts for services out to tender, which health service leaders have criticised as a destabilising waste of time, effort and money for them as they have seen private firms undercut NHS care providers to win business.
and this is what the Kings Fund has said: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/articles/big-election-questions-nhs-privatised

I am opposed to privatisation of the National Health Service, but like most people I am used to paying National Insurance, which meets some of the cost of healthcare [the rest coming from general taxation]. The costs are there whatever form of delivery we have. I doubt any government would have the nerve to move towards privatisation but it is being used as a political whipping stick. If anything, the coronavirus epidemic has increased general support for the NHS. I recall a time when it was a national scandal and privatisation was popularly seen as a way of making it better.

Samantha Smith says:
27 March 2021

My ultimate concern is a lack of trust for the main parties. The role of our MP is to speak for us. The evidence shows that this is done in the form of lip service. I feel being able to vote in-house about locking down ,going on holiday and not providing real evidence is corrupt. Awarding friends contracts. I wrote to my MP and nothing of evidence. The role of an MP has got lost across parliament . This has fed across the whole system .
This is our land it belongs to the living creatures . We cannot give up our rights like this

Stuart Fryd says:
15 April 2021

The system for most GPs seems fundamentally flawed. I am currently still on hold (26 mins and counting. I can only do this as I have a week day off work. I work from 7:30am to 5pm, I can’t spend 30 mins just sitting on the phone in case someone answers. And when you do get through, appointments are often weeks later. The system is great if you can sit around on the phone at 8am and It’s no wonder people just turn up to A&E.

I cannot comment on the situation with most GP practices but mine usually answers the phone within a few minutes [or sooner in the afternoons after the urgent morning calls have been dealt with].

It is also possible to send an e-mail for routine matters or to request an appointment. Turning up at A&E usually involves a long wait as their priority is emergencies and serious casualties.

The NHS is a shambles. What a shame that such a wonderful system of free health care has been allowed to degenerate. It was meant to be a service to all the people, especially for those without the means to pay for the services of a private doctor. The founding of the NHS was an inspired social service that loudly proclaimed Great Britain was a civilised country that genuinly cared for its citizens. Well, it worked for a time, perhaps not perfectly, but I still feel that, if run the way it was originally intended, it would still serve us all well. Unfortunately things have changed, people want progress, or so I am told, so by degrees the NHS has been decimated. Central management has been relocated, most services now are managed by ‘proffesionals’ operating as NHS trusts, directors in fact of smaller business like structures. Some would say that it is the only way to do it, hands on without any interference from a central sourse. Delegate the responsibility, create as many managers as it needs, regardless of cost. The NHS is now run on a business footing so good service means up to date business methods, prune the dead wood and all that rot; but such a service must come at a cost. Although strenuously denied, our NHS is ripe for privitisation, to some with a vested interest it would make sense. I imagine our American cousins would love to invest, but the price must be right. To get it cheap a speculator would like to see the service as a crumbling dinosaur, an unsustainable remnant that needs to be brought right up to date. I think an investor would not worry to much about altruism, the balance sheet is of more importance. Well I have said my bit and I am sorry because the NHS, our NHS, is floundering; kiss it goodbye. So, pay up and shut up, business first.

J E Grimsey – I couldn’t disagree with you more.

I think the NHS provides a first class service and is actually a victim of its own success. I won’t catalogue all the achievements it has made in my lifetime: they are there for all to see in longevity, survival rates, and offsetting the deficiencies in adult social care.

Of course, the NHS would serve us a lot better if people looked after themselves properly and did not present with poor health and medical conditions as a result of bad lifestyle choices. Heaven preserve it from privatisation and American takeovers.

Niall McGlashan says:
23 August 2021

Getting to see a GP appears almost impossible now. There was a time when it was the doctor’s job to work out what was wrong with patients when they reported sick. Nowadays a patient must know exactly what is wrong with them and be able to describe the ailment eloquently. If not, you’ll fail the oral exam, otherwise known as “triage”.

Worse my GP’s phone system appear permanently overloaded – seemingly a common complaint. I have lost count of the hours I have wasted hanging around on the phone in a queue, only to be told “I have rung at the wrong time” and “I should ring back later”. If I wait for an hour on the phone, what exactly is the problem with just making an appointment for me, even if it is weeks’ later?

Frankly, if I am advised by anyone, including hospital consultant, to report to my GP I just ignore them – there’s no point in trying anymore.

Niall – We don’t have the same scale of problems as you seem to experience but because of the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitals there are a lot more people having to see their GP practices for intermediate treatment while they await their surgical and other procedures.

A grim fact is that there are over 130,000 fewer people requiring attention than there were two years ago and still the national health system is overstretched.

One thing I have noticed is that when I do see a doctor or nurse practitioner there is no decline in the length of time given to the appointment or the amount of care and treatment provided. Perhaps a verbal triage process is a good way of prioritising patient care to the more serious or needy cases.

Some useful information can be found here —

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51032691#:~:text=According%20to%20official%20figures%2C%20there%20were%20just%20over,is%20a%20drop%20of%203.7%25%20since%20September%202015.

— including the following :

:: According to official figures, there were just over 28,000 fully qualified full-time equivalent GP’s in England as of September 2019. This is a drop of 3.7% since September 2015.

:: There were 160.8 million GP appointments in the 12 months to November 2019, with 41.9 million of those in the last three months, 450,000 more than in the same period a year earlier.

It will be interesting to see the figures for 2020-21 in due course.

Niall McGlashan says:
25 August 2021

I don’t doubt there are more people using GP phone services because of Covid, but this is exactly why the phone systems should have been enhanced if only temporarily – the opposite has occurred. The result is grid lock. At my own surgery they only appear to do on-the-day appointments now. In consequence patients must engage in an interminable round of phone calls in a usually fruitless attempt to talk to someone let alone a GP.

The truth is that before long GP’s will be little more than a branch of emergency care. The oral triage exam guarantees this, as seemingly GP’s only deal with on-the-day emergencies now. Some may consider this an adequate service – I do not. What happened to the time when you rang up the surgery and after the minimum of explanation of your condition, you could book a face-to-face appointment with a GP, say three weeks hence?

Patients who are ill, almost by definition, are not the best people to explain why they are ill – and this assumes any of us is articulate enough to explain our symptoms, some of which can only be observed by others anyway. It is the GP’s job to work out what is wrong after a physical exam not the patient, but good luck trying to get such a consultation these days.

UK GP surgeries have definitely changed, it’s hard to see the doctor or getting an appointment, only when insisting that’s when you get a telephone appointment. And this is like they want people to die and not caring about their people anymore.

JULIET JOSLIN says:
17 September 2021

It is awful trying to get an appointment….I try not to visit but there are times when I need to….last time I was on the telephone waiting in a queue for half an hour! Now just recently I went online to do a consultation, they were meant to get back to me within 48 hours but they haven’t, and now it’s the weekend…it’s disgraceful, they just can’t seem to cope… And I have been in the same local area for 50 years. All Dr surgeries need to open on a Saturday to get to grips with seeing people. Some of us do get ill at weekends too! Needs thinking about…