Widow’s warning over virtual GP appointments

A Brentwood widow who blames her husband’s death on being refused an in-person GP appointment during coronavirus restrictions last year says more people will die “unnecessarily” if doctors do not see people face to face.

Peter King died months after being offered a telephone consultation with a GP who told him to take paracetamol for his pain and prescribed a gastro-resistant tablet, as the doctor believed he had a digestive problem.

But it turned out Peter needed urgent medical attention due to problems with his gall bladder and he died on October 9 from a heart attack brought on by subsequent complications.

The first anniversary of his death, this Saturday. comes as new figures show that fewer than two-thirds of GP appointments in Essex are being conducted face to face, close to the levels seen during lockdown despite the ending of restrictions.

The latest figures from the NHS reveal just 63 per cent of patients in the area were seen face to face by their GP in August, including home visits.

That compares to 60 per cent in January, during the winter lockdown, and 85 per cent in February 2019, before the pandemic hit the UK.

Lisa King, 55, who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, says Peter would still be alive if he had been able to properly talk through his symptoms face to face.

She now warns that more families will suffer the grief like hers if GPs do not dramatically improve their face to face consultation rates.

She said: “If they don’t see patients face to face people will die. There are some situations that require face to face – like Peter’s.

“They are putting people are risk.”

The figure varies widely at a local level, with only 54 per cent of GP consultations in West Essex taking place either in the surgery or at home, compared to 73 per cent in Castle Point and Rochford.

Issues with accessing GPs have led to a knock-on effect on other services, with A&Es busier than ever during the summer, and deteriorating ambulance response times.

Analysis by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) showed a lack of access to GPs has been a key factor in this increased pressure – particularly with older people, those with disabilities and families on low incomes struggling with remote appointments.

Both the government and NHS England say more patients should have face to face consultations – and that GPs are being given the money to provide them.

However, GPs have said rising demand and staff shortages mean they are struggling to see more people face to face.

GPs have seen their workloads increase due to the pandemic – for example, by the Covid vaccination programme, people needing support due to long waiting times for hospital treatment, and increased frailty in older people.

Speaking to the BBC, Royal College of GPs chair Professor Martin Marshall said: “The workforce is simply not big enough to manage.”

But that does not wash with Mrs King.

She said: “In Peter’s case it was a case of life and death.

“For some people a virtual consultation will work.

“But Peter died unnecessarily. The figures are disgusting and I fear for the families that will lose loved ones prematurely like we did.

“It’s the grief and what ifs, all the plans you had are gone. They can’t dress the figures up. They are what they are. They are putting lives at risk.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re hugely grateful to GP practices for their hard work and dedication to bringing appointment numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, with over 330 million delivered in the last year.

“We are clear GP practices must provide face to face appointments to those who want them, alongside remote consultations.

“We are investing £270 million to expand GP capacity, on top of providing £1.5 billion for general practice until 2023/24 to deliver world-class care to patients.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter