Published: 05:00, 14 October 2021
| Updated: 14:33, 17 October 2021
A desperate daughter who called a GP practice 286 times in a vain attempt to book her elderly mother an urgent appointment has raised concerns vulnerable patients could slip through the net.
As doctors face a huge spike in demand in the wake of the pandemic, Elaine Harrad is worried pensioners struggling to contact the surgery could miss out on getting medical help.
Heron Medical Practice in Herne Bay says its telephone lines are “very busy”, with one long-standing member of staff saying she has “never seen anything like it”.
Mrs Harrad rang the practice on Friday in a bid to get her mum, 84-year-old Barbara Shonk from Broomfield, an urgent appointment for a suspected eye infection.
But no slots were available, and she was advised to see a pharmacist over the weekend before calling back first thing on Monday.
Mrs Harrad sourced eye drops from a pharmacy, before ringing the GP practice the minute it opened at 8am on Monday.
But she found the line already busy, with a full queue ahead of her, and her call was terminated.
She then spent 45 minutes ringing the surgery, before eventually getting through on her 286th attempt.
But finding herself 30th in line to speak to a receptionist, the catering manager requested a call back.
By the time she was called back almost 40 minutes later, there were no GP appointments left.
Mrs Shonk was offered a telephone consultation, but her daughter felt her eye needed examination in person.
She eventually took her mum to the Queen Victoria Hospital, where she was seen promptly and given antibiotics.
The ordeal has made Mrs Harrad concerned for elderly people in need of GP appointments.
“My mum and dad are both 84 and I know for a fact that if that if they had to go through this system they wouldn’t bother,” she said.
“I’m lucky I have a smart telephone, and I just press ‘redial’.
“They’d just listen to everything and put the phone down.
“My mum just wouldn’t have been able to get an appointment, and it was something that she needed to see someone about.
“They’ve got me, so I just keep on trying and trying.
“But a lot of elderly people don’t have that, and I’m sure a lot of them are just going through the system and being missed.
“And it’s not OK.
“If there’s no one to fight their corner, they will just go under the radar.”
Frustrated by her experience, Mrs Harrad took to Facebook where others have shared her concerns.
One woman, who acts as a carer for an elderly person, said: “I don’t know how people with no advocate or help are getting on.”
Another commenter said: “It’s so exasperating. There are a lot of elderly people out there that have no one.”
Another said: “Before lockdown you could always see a doctor.
“Now you’re hanging on the phone for ages only to be told ‘no appointments left, ring tomorrow’.”
Demand 'never relents' due to backlog of patients
Heron Medical Practice says it is experiencing “a huge increase in demand” as it deals with a backlog sparked by the pandemic.
The practice - which comprises St Anne’s Surgery, Beltinge and Reculver Surgery, and Hersden Surgery - is calling for those able to do so to book appointments online, freeing up phone lines for elderly patients and those without computer access.
A spokesman said: “We are sorry to hear about the difficulties experienced by this patient and are pleased that she was able to get a positive resolution at the Queen Victoria Hospital.
“General practice across the country is facing a huge increase in demand.
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“The NHS Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group is working with practices and partners to address the pressures brought about by the backlog of patients who have not been seen during the pandemic.”
Regarding the demand for appointments, business manager Helen Sutton said: “I have never seen anything like it, and I’ve worked in the NHS for nearly 22 years.
“Before Covid, we always were busy in the morning. From 8am until about 11.30am the phone didn’t stop, but then by the afternoon it was just the odd call and it would be quieter.
“Now, it’s full-on until 6.30pm. It just never, ever, ever relents.
“We can’t magic up more appointments, so for the rest of the day the reception staff don’t have any appointments to give.
“It’s really really difficult, and I feel sorry for everybody - the patients and the staff.”
She says other avenues are available to those with access to computers such as the online e-consultation form introduced during the pandemic, while a list of email contacts is available on Heron Medical Practice’s Facebook page.
There is also a 24-hour automated telephone system that allows patients to book appointments out-of-hours, and the practice is steadily increasing its face-to-face appointments.
Dr Simon Dunn added: “We are aware that our phone lines are very busy and understand the frustrations that not being able to get through on the telephone causes.
“We are working hard to be able to answer telephone calls as quickly as possible.
“Although we are not oversubscribed, we have far more of our patients contacting us at any one time than would have been the case before the pandemic.
“Patients can help by going online to use our online triage system if they are able, freeing up phone lines for those who cannot use the internet.”