Getting through to Waltham Forest GPs on the phone has been a “challenge” since the pandemic began, according to the local health watchdog.
Speaking to the council’s health scrutiny committee this week, Healthwatch representative Shareen Cambridge said multiple patients claimed to have given up trying to reach their doctors.
Three committee members said they have had the same complaints from residents, who are also frustrated they can’t get face-to-face appointments.
Satisfaction with borough GPs has dropped ten percent since the pandemic began, patient survey results show.
Shareen said there had been positive feedback from patients who are happy with telephone appointments but that some elderly patients can’t book appointments without help from relatives.
She said: “Things like being able to get through on the telephone is really quite a challenge.
“I’m really petitioning on behalf of residents, they are struggling to get through in terms of getting an appointment, they may try and eventually give up.”
William Cunningham-Davis, director of primary care transformation for Waltham Forest, said the problem at some practices is a technical issue rather than staff not responding.
He added: “So now we’re asking how we can move to a cloud-based system, rather than two or three lines they can have multiple or put people on hold, some of the feedback we have had is people have been waiting for a very long time.”
Figures show that telephone appointments in the borough have increased by more than a third since 2019, seven percent more than the rest of north east London.
At 56 per cent, the biggest increase in telephone appointments has been at the Walthamstow West group of surgeries, which includes St James, Queens Road, The Grove, Higham Hill and The Seymour Practice.
At 14 per cent, the lowest increase has been at the Leyton Collaborative, made up of The Manor Practice, SMA Medical Centre and Leyton Healthcare.
Dr Ken Aswani, clinical chair of primary care in Waltham Forest, was asked if there are measures to make sure elderly or digitally excluded patients can get a face-to-face appointment if they need one.
Dr Aswani said patients who get face-to-face appointments are usually triaged on the telephone and that there “should be” an option for people who can’t use online forms.
He agreed that “with change people can suffer” but said he would always prioritise face-to-face appointments for young or elderly patients.
He added: “What we do is have forums where we share best practice. Obviously if there’s a situation where a practice is way off the norm we have individual conversations with the practice saying ‘this is how it’s better to work’ but we do have forums where we share what is a sensible approach.
“If anyone has serious symptoms, they should not hesitate to get in contact. With urgent referrals quite often the outcome is much better, we would not refuse that, we don’t want worse health outcomes.”