GP surgeries across Kent and Medway responded rapidly and innovatively to the Covid-19 crisis to ensure they could safely continue to meet patients’ needs.
Practice staff and GPs changed the way they worked – in some cases literally overnight –embracing new technology to deliver consultations virtually; introduce or step up telephone triage systems; implement tougher infection control processes; work remotely and make changes to the waiting and clinical areas.
These measures were necessary to ensure that patients who needed to see their GP or a practice nurse for routine care – such as appointments, or to access repeat prescriptions and immunisations – could continue to do so safely.
The biggest change that patients may have seen has been the way in which primary care consultations have been taking place.
Phone and online
Most surgeries are now operating telephone triage and the majority of appointments are now carried out by phone or online, unless there is a need for a face-to-face consultation.
Before the pandemic, approximately 25 per cent of GP practices in Kent and Medway routinely carried out online or virtual consultations – now around 75 per cent are doing so.
Between March and May, 28,000 consultations have taken place online and 25,500 have been carried out via a secure video link.
Dr Justin Charlesworth, GP at Orchard End Surgery and Clinical Director for the Weald Primary Care Network (PCN), said teams had been more creative about how they managed patients and that the changes that had been made had led to improved efficiency and will in some cases last beyond the pandemic.
He said: “The default of seeing all patients face to face has changed. It has made us realise that patients coming in one after the other isn’t in some cases necessary and I hope we don’t go back to that.
“The three GPs at my practice had never done video consultations before but the technology was there for us to use, and we have found it incredibly straight forward and amazing to use.”
Primary Care Treatment Centres
Primary Care Networks– which are groups of GP practices working together in a geographical area – restructured services so that patients with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 were treated at designated Primary Care Treatment Centres. As the number of Covid-19 cases continues to fall, the CCG continues to review thefuture use of these centres, which take patients who have been referred by NHS 111 or their own GP.
Patients with routine needs continued to be seen by their regular GP as other practices were able to see patients that were not showing symptoms of Covid-19.- but changes had to be made rapidly to the physical environment and standard ways of working.
Keeping patients and staff safe
Dawn Benjamin, Practice Manager at St George’s Medical Centre, Sheerness, said: “The practice staff worked as a complete team to make necessary changes to ensure we could still see patients who needed to be seen. We ensured chairs in the waiting room were 2.5 metres apart; we doubled appointment times so we would not have patients waiting at the same time that were unable to socially distance; it also meant we have extra time to do a deeper clean between patients.
“Patients are met at the door by our receptionist and all staff are wearing the appropriate PPE, this keeps our staff and patients safe.”
To ensure staff could continue their work without being present at the GP surgery, 2,500 laptops were deployed across the county and equipped with access to appropriate IT systems.
Lesley Betts, Practice Manager at Balmoral Surgery, part of the Deal and Sandwich PCN, said: “Our GP and non clinical staff have been able to access the clinical system securely from home and take part in our normal day to day tasks as if we were in the surgery building.”
Manage health and wellbeing at home
Although GP practices are operating differently, they are still open for business. Patients can find out how to contact their GP, order repeat prescriptions and manage their wellbeing and existing conditions without leaving home at: nhs.uk/health-at-home
The CCG is now asking patients for their feedback on the changes that have taken place during the pandemic. An online survey with further details is available here until Monday 15 June. The survey covers all types of NHS care not just GP services.