Patients have been urged to take three simple steps before booking a GP appointment to help family doctors cope with soaring demand.
The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) is urging the public to take up the “three before GP” mantra, asking them to first see whether their problem could be dealt with through self-care, seeking help from reputable online resources or getting assistance from a pharmacist.
The call comes as GP leaders said there are not enough family doctors working in England and that practices are closing at an “alarming rate”.
Pledges to increase the GP workforce by 5,000 by 2021 are in “jeopardy”, according to RCGP chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard.
Prof Stokes-Lampard said GPs “really feel the pinch” over the winter period as she urged people to “think” before picking up the phone to call their surgery for an appointment.
She said: “’Three before GP’ is a quick way to summarise to people to think - before you come to the GP surgery for an appointment have you done these three basic things: Self-care - so can I look after this myself?
“Then using online resources like NHS Choices - a reputable source of online information. In years gone by we’d have said look in the family health book but now it is an online resource.
“The third is seeking advice via a pharmacist.
“We’re just asking people to stop and think, when you reach for the phone to book a GP appointment think: ‘Can I do this myself? Do I need some online help? Could a pharmacists help me?’
“Of course for many things you’ll still be phoning the GP and that’s fine - that’s what we’re here for.
“But if just 10 per cent of people didn’t come and see their GP, but did one of those three things, that would make a huge difference.
“It would give us the capacity to deal with those who really need our help at a difficult time for the whole NHS.”
When asked whether GPs will be able to cope this winter if patients don’t take these measures, she replied: “That’s the worry we have. We believe that up to a quarter of appointments could be avoidable or sorted out by another means.
“Today more than 1m people will be seeing a GP.
“If 100,000 of those were seen elsewhere, the difference that would make, the time it would allow us to spend with other people.
“For example, yesterday in surgery people were coming in with indigestion - this is a classic one at this time of year, people eat a bit too much, drink a bit too much, gain a bit of weight in the winter and develop indigestion and heartburn - that’s the sort of thing where a pharmacists could easily signpost them to a range of medications.”
The practising GP added that pharmacies are “ready and set up” for an influx of patients.
“People underestimate how highly trained pharmacists are,” she added.
“There are lots of initiatives and incentives there for pharmacists to offer these services and they get frustrated when people don’t use them in this way.
“We’re used to [pharmacies] dispensing prescribed medication or being somewhere we go to buy over the counter medication but it is easy to forget what a brilliant source of advice and wisdom they can offer the population which is why we can include them in this list.”
On workforce issues, Prof Stokes-Lampard added: “There are measures being put in place to train more GPs - and in fairness there are now more doctors training to be GPs than ever before, but that takes time to come through the system.”
“So we’re trying to encourage more qualified GPs to come to the UK from overseas and that initiative is taking off at the moment.
“But all of this is too little too late for some practices - we’re hearing of practices closing at an alarming rate.
“There was a big one in Bristol - I think with around 13,000 patients - that recently handed back their contract and there are more in the pipeline. It is a really worrying time for practices and their patients when they just go under.
“Care gets provided but people lose the continuity of care, they lose familiarity, they also have to travel a lot further to see a GP and it is the most vulnerable patients that suffer most.”
Prof Stokes-Lampard reiterated calls for GPs to be added to the migration advisory shortage occupation list.
“I’m a big fan of the arts but choreographers and ballet dancers are on the shortage occupation list but GPs aren’t,” she added.
“It does strike me as a curious anomaly. I have written to the Home Secretary about this issue.”
Commenting on the remarks, Neal Patel, pharmacist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Pharmacists are the experts on medicines and can help people with both questions about winter bugs as well as concerns about side effects of prescription medicines.
“Even if it’s a cough or a cold, don’t wait until it gets more serious. Seek advice from your pharmacist.
“Crucially, pharmacists can help you decide when that worrying symptom is something you can manage yourself or when you should seek help, which is especially important over the holidays when your GP surgery may be closed.”
An NHS England spokesman said: “We do need more GPs, and although encouragingly newly qualified doctors are now choosing GP training at near record levels, this is being partly offset by early retirements so the NHS is also stepping up international recruitment.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “This Government is committed to building an immigration system which works for everyone, and we keep all immigration routes under review.
“The last time the independent Migration Advisory Committee were commissioned to review whether GPs should be added to the Shortage Occupation List they did not recommend including them.”