The Spectator's misleading attack on GPs

The EveryDoctor team

The Spectator is attacking GPs, EveryDoctor responds with the facts.

The Spectator’s offering, “It’s time for NHS GPs to stop hiding behind their telephones” is a misleading attack on NHS staff. It’s full of inaccuracies, blames current GPs for politicians’ decision-making almost 20 years ago, and makes bizarre generalisations about the frailty of the over-75s. However, as an organisation which represents UK doctors, EveryDoctor is not writing to propagate political rhetoric or engage in sensationalism. The crux of The Spectator’s attack centres around patient safety, and the implication that patients’ needs are not at the forefront of NHS doctors’ agenda. These baseless assertions by right-wing media outlets are enormously damaging to doctor-patient relationships, and so we are compelled to respond with the facts.

NHS GPs areunder enormous pressure currently; pressure of a volume which is hard to fathom. Far from shunning work, as this article suggests, GPs in England carried out 1 million more appointments per week in January 2021 than in January 2020.

The pandemic, and the effects this has had on the NHS (backlogs of non-emergency care, causing delayed and cancelled hospital appointments and operations) have resulted in the longest waiting lists on record in England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are struggling enormously too. GPs have not only stepped up by leading the local COVID-19 vaccination programme in many parts ofthe UK (an incredible feat), they have also stepped up in this crisis to protect sick patients awaiting hospital input. While hospital staff battle through backlogs as quickly as they can, GPs are shouldering enormous responsibility in order to keep sick patients on waiting lists safe in exceptionally challenging circumstances.

One EveryDoctor member who is an NHS GP partner explained to us that recently she had worked for 24 hours non-stop in her practice; assessing patients,chasing diagnostic results and communicating with patients. She routinely works 30 extra unpaid hours a week at present, just to keep her patients safe. Doctors refer to these periods of extreme pressure as “fire-fighting”; forced to prioritise, we treat the sickest patients first in order to keep them alive. It is as stark as that. Safety must be prioritised above all else. This leaves others whose lives are not at risk waiting, frustrated. We feel this frustration. It troubles us deeply; of course it does. As doctors, we have dedicated our lives to care for others. We wish we had more resources to care for patients; but with government departmental cuts of over £40 billion since 2010, we entered this pandemic with a severely understaffed and underfunded NHS, and the current crisis was predictable given the lack of investmentin the NHS for over a decade.

On the subject of telephones, GPs have always used various methods to communicate with their patients, in order to accommodate patients’ wishes, employ efficiency, and serve their communities well. Telephone consultations certainly aren’t a new phenomenon, and during the pandemic GPs innovated fast, using telemedicineto reduce social contact (keeping vulnerable patients safe from COVID-19), as well as creating convenience for many patients who still welcome their ability to speak to a doctor without having to attend the GP surgery.

The Spectator has a confusing take on remote consultations; celebrating the “healthtech ecosystem” championed by Matt Hancock (presumably referring to the privatehealth company Babylon which Hancock received negative scrutiny for supporting),while vilifying NHS GPs who pick up the telephone to connect with their patients efficiently.

This article contains various inaccuracies, including an assertion about a GP pay rise of “11% in 4 years”. The figures stated claim to represent a UK average but in fact only relate to England, and in fact the point is lost entirely when the broader picture of NHS pay squeezes is considered. The British Medical Association reported in July that NHS GP partners’pay in England was cut in real-terms by more than a quarter (25.7%), while salaried GPshave seen a similar cut (24.6%) between 2008/2009 and 2018/2019. The Spectator are framing statistics inaccurately in an effort to discredit NHS GPs, whose pay packets have been squeezed significantly since 2010 along withall other NHS staff.

But finally, what The Spectator (and many other right-wing media outlets) fail to recogniseis that GPs are specialists. They are medical doctors with a specialism intreating the widest array of conditions in the community, and they take responsibilityfor the safety of their patients, be that over the phone, in a clinic, or at a home visit (which are still done, despite The Spectator’s claims, and continued when necessary even at the height of the pandemic, even when many GPs were lacking in basic PPE due to failings from this government). We should be proud of our NHS GP workforce; they and all NHS staff are an extraordinarygroup of individuals keeping our communities safe at the most challenging time the NHS has ever faced. We thank every single one for their incredible dedication and care.

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