This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; London-based GP – Dr Nirja Joshi.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of negative press with regards to access to GP appointments (1). We wanted to take this opportunity to talk about how to best use the time in your GP appointment to make sure that you leave with what you were expecting.
Making your GP appointment
The most common problem I hear from patients is that ‘there are never any appointments’. It is important to understand that there are different types of appointments available with GPs; routine and urgent. If you have a routine problem such as wanting to discuss contraception, the menopause, a skin issue, such as acne, or a long term health condition, such as diabetes, a routine appointment is the most appropriate appointment for you to book.
Routine appointments may be available anything from one to six weeks in advance, depending on availability. It is important to contact your GP surgery proactively for these types of problems, otherwise, these problems may become more urgent over time. Most GP surgeries now have access to online booking for these types of appointments, which may save you time on the phone. If you have any communication difficulties, you can request a double appointment, for example, with an interpreter if needed.
If you have a sudden illness and you need to speak to your doctor, people can sometimes be put off that their GP ‘won’t have an appointment for weeks’. GP surgeries have provisions for urgent issues which may occur on the day. If you have an urgent medical problem, phone your surgery, and speak to reception and let them know that you have an urgent medical problem. Seeing your GP when you have an urgent issue, may prevent onward issues such as having to go to A+E.
Nationally, GPs had to change all appointments to telephone triage due to coronavirus (2). As we start to come out of the pandemic, and the rules begin to change, surgeries are making individual decisions on what works for their patients and staff. If you are offered a telephone appointment, and do require a face to face examination, the GP will bring you into the surgery at a mutually convenient time.
What to do before your GP appointment
If you are able to share the reason for your appointment at the time of booking, it can help ensure that you are seeing the correct professional. For example, if you have ankle pain, your GP may not have an available appointment for two weeks, but there may be a physiotherapist in the practice who could see you within a day or two. Equally, if you had a query about your medication, the practice pharmacist may be able to help you with this.
Knowing what your appointment is about, allows your GP to look into your notes and see if you have had similar symptoms in the past, and perhaps what treatment may have been tried previously.
Consider what you want from your appointment (3). Having a think about what it is that you would like as the outcome of the appointment, and communicating that to your doctor, can help to ensure that your concerns are addressed. For example, if you are worried about something such as cancer, do tell your doctor, as they would be able to consider tests, or reassure you to make sure you do not leave a consultation feeling as though your worries have not been discussed.
If you have questions, and you are concerned you may not remember them, do write them down. It is best to ensure that you leave a consultation with all questions answered.
How many problems in a consultation?
Different surgeries will have varying policies with regards to this. As a rule of thumb, GP appointments are ten minutes in length (3). This length is normally sufficient to discuss one medical issue. If you have multiple issues, you can request to have a longer appointment due to multiple issues, or if this is not possible, tell your doctor what your multiple issues are, and then, together, you can consider in which order these can be dealt with. It is important to remember, what may be bothering you the most, may not be the most serious or worrying problem to your doctor!
Should you Google your symptoms before going to the GP?
There is so much information available on the internet. Most patients do end up searching their symptoms on the internet. Unfortunately, there is a lot of inaccurate and worryingly presented information online. If you suffer from health anxiety, I would suggest avoiding looking up your symptoms before you attend. If you choose to read about your symptoms, I would suggest using reputable sources such as the NHS or 111 website (4). This can help your doctor to understand what you feel may be going on.
When to phone 111?
111 is a telephone service which is designed to help improve the access to the correct healthcare for patients (4). There is a website 111.nhs.uk which can be used for anyone over the age of 5 to help to check symptoms or signpost you to the most appropriate health service. There are also GPs, pharmacists and dentists who you may be able to speak to over the phone. You can be given medication via 111 if this is appropriate. 111 also have access to out of hours GP appointments, so if you feel that your issue could be dealt with by a GP, and your GP has no appointments, they may be able to help you see a GP locally if needed (4).
Your pharmacist can also help
Minor illnesses consist of things such as a cold, sore throat, hay fever, mild eczema and these conditions are often well managed by a community pharmacist (5). If you are concerned about a mild health issue, you may receive more prompt advice and treatment options from your local pharmacist. Pharmacies may have a consultation room if you need to speak about something privately. You do not require an appointment to speak to a pharmacist. Pharmacists can also help with regard to some vaccinations such as the flu vaccine if you are eligible (5).
If you need medical attention, do remember that there are several different places where you may be able to get medical help. Consider using 111 or your community pharmacy, and if you need to see your doctor, think about the points above to help you to get the most out of your appointment.
- British Medical Association. Pressures in general practice data analysis [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Mar 7]. Available from: https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/nhs-delivery-and-workforce/pressures/pressures-in-general-practice-data-analysis
- Royal College of General Practitioners. GP consultations post-COVID should be a combination of remote and face to face, depending on patient need, says College [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2022 Mar 8]. Available from: https://www.rcgp.org.uk/about-us/news/2021/may/gp-consultations-post-covid.aspx
- Garener J. How to get the most out of your GP appointment [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Mar 8]. Available from: https://patient.info/news-and-features/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-your-gp-appointment
- NHS. When to use 111 [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2022 Mar 7]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/urgent-and-emergency-care-services/when-to-use-111/NHS
- How your pharmacy can help [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Mar 8]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/prescriptions-and-pharmacies/pharmacies/how-your-pharmacy-can-help/