GP practices in Runcorn and Widnes have had to change the way they deliver services during the Coronavirus pandemic, but they are still working hard to support patients with any health concerns. Here, we examine the changes that local surgeries have put in place over the past 12 weeks to keep our communities safe and healthy.
Making changes to meet the challenges
To help surgeries deal with increasing demand on services and to protect patients and staff, local practices are using a "total triage" system. This means that when patients feel unwell, they are asked to complete an online form on their local surgery website (eConsult) or call their surgery in the first instance. The surgery then asks the patient for more information about their health concern so they can get the help they need. This enables surgeries to prioritise appointments for patients most in need and also stop any unnecessary visits to surgeries. Please remember, patients should not to go into their surgery without an appointment.
Government guidance states that from 15 June, all visitors and outpatients in hospitals must wear a face covering at all times. GP practices in Runcorn and Widnes are also adopting this measure and requesting that patients wear a face covering if they have to go into their surgery for an appointment. Instructions on how to wear and make a cloth face covering can be viewed at gov.uk.
Appointments are also being delivered in new ways such as by telephone and video call to reduce the number of people visiting surgeries. However, if a patient needs a face-to-face appointment, surgeries will agree an appointment time. When patients arrive, they will see practices are using social distancing measures, staff are wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and surgeries are cleaned to Public Health England standards.
Providing help to everyone in our communities
To support extremely vulnerable patients unable to leave their homes, some GPs have continued to visit their own patients at home during the pandemic while others have launched new home visiting services.
A small number of face-to-face assessment sites have also been set up locally. The aim is to provide a safe place where face-to-face appointments can be provided to people who are self-isolating because they live in a household with someone who has COVID-19 symptoms. They can also offer appointments to COVID-19 patients who need support with another health issue. The sites do not offer testing for COVID-19 and are not public testing sites.
Appointments at the sites are arranged through a patient's local GP practice. However, patients with COVID-19 symptoms should use NHS 111 online Coronavirus service - https://111.nhs.uk/covid-19 or if they need help with another health concern NHS 111 online (https://111.nhs.uk/) or via phone in the first instance unless it is a life threatening emergency then they should dial 999. NHS 111 may then refer them to their local GP practice for assessment via phone or video call and then if clinically appropriate, a further appointment will be booked at one of the dedicated face-to-face assessment sites.
To ensure the safety of patients and staff, only patients with a booked appointment are allowed access to the face-to-face assessment sites.
The sites ensure that patients who are free from COVID-19 symptoms are seen separately from anyone who lives in a household that has a possible COVID-19 infection thus reducing any risk of infection.
The benefits of using technology to support patients
Through the difficult challenges the last 12 weeks has presented, patients and GP practices are benefitting from some of the technology that has been implemented. An example is eConsult which is an online form which patients can complete on their surgery website to contact their practice. The form can be completed at a time that is convenient for patients and they can get a quick response from their practice (usually within 48 hours). It also helps practices to handle patient queries safely and effectively.
In the last 12 weeks since the start of the pandemic, 4,628 eConsults have been submitted by patients in Halton.
Patients who live in local care homes have also been able to access regular video consultations with their GP. By patients, care homes and GPs being able to keep in regular contact during the pandemic, it has supported the health and wellbeing of patients during a difficult time.
Dr Andrew Davies, Clinical Chief Officer for NHS Halton Clinical Commissioning Group and NHS Warrington Clinical Commissioning Group said:
"We want to thank local surgeries who have worked tirelessly to ensure that appropriate and effective changes have been put in place in response to the pandemic.
"While the implementation of video and online consultations has been successful and for many has improved access, we acknowledge that some patients have been inconvenienced through experiencing longer waiting times when calling their local surgery. Please accept our thanks for your patience and your continued support and understanding."
"As the risk from the pandemic reduces and lockdown restrictions start easing, we are continuing to work closely with surgeries through our primary care networks. We are carefully considering how to reintroduce services while maintaining social distancing and ensuring the risk to patients and colleagues in general practice is minimized. However, it is still important that patients only attend their local surgery when they have a booked appointment."