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Armagh doctor shares reality of Covid-19 and dismisses any notion GPs ‘twiddling their thumbs’

Writing for Armagh I, Dr Frances O'Hagan, a GP for 25 years, answers an important question: 'What are GPs doing during this pandemic?'

Frances O'Hagan Armagh GP

A County Armagh GP has defended herself and colleagues against misguided perceptions that they have been “twiddling their thumbs” during the pandemic.

Dr Frances O’Hagan, of the Friary Surgery in Armagh City, has also encouraged people to take no chances and, if advised to attend a Covid centre, to do so.

She has spoken of the changes in circumstances, the enhanced workloads, having to adapting to changes and measures to keep staff and patients safe, delivering a full flu vaccination programme and now taking the lead in delivering the Covid-19 vaccine,

Writing for Armagh I, Dr O’Hagan, who is deputy chair of the BMA’s NI Committee of GPs, has answered a very important question which many have had on their lips: ‘What are GPs doing during this pandemic?’

By Dr Frances O’Hagan, GP

There seems to be a perception that GPs are hiding in their surgeries, avoiding patients and twiddling their thumbs during this pandemic.

I’d like to tell you, from a GP’s perspective that nothing could be further from the truth. As a GP of 25 years, this winter has been one of the busiest in my career, and that’s saying something, as winters have traditionally always been very busy.

So what are we doing? We’re continuing to see patients face to face in surgeries, but not in the way we used to prior to the pandemic. We are asking people to ring first because we’re trying to reduce the numbers of patients in crowded waiting rooms to minimise the spread of infection, and keep patients safe. This is something Emergency Departments are now starting to do to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We’ve also introduced phone and video call consultations. At the height of the first surge, GPs carried out approximately 900 video consultations weekly or about 10,000 video consultations in total. Patients can also send in photographs, which remain in their notes, and this is particularly useful for skin conditions.

One of the positives of using technology for consultations is that patients have not had to wait too long to discuss concerns with their GP. Previously, they might have had to wait for a week or two for a face to face appointment.

I want to assure all patients that, during the course of a phone call, if a doctor feels you need to be assessed face to face, it will happen. Around 30% of all consultations still take place face to face, compared to 50% at the same time last year.

I also want to assure patients that if you are worried about any symptoms, you should call and describe your condition and you will get an appropriate call back. It is essential that you give enough information to our receptionists, who are all bound by confidentiality rules, as this allows us to call patients with the most concerning symptoms first.

It may not always be the GP who calls back because you may benefit from speaking to one of the many skilled healthcare professionals in a surgery. You could get a call from the nurse, practice pharmacist, physiotherapist, social worker or the GP or if the GP thinks an alternative service will be more helpful one, of the reception staff might phone you back with details of that service.

Some people have also asked why GPs aren’t seeing them or their children in person for conditions such as a cough or a temperature.

The reason for this is because GPs have been advised to keep COVID and non-COVID patients separate; and not to see patients (child or adult) with COVID-19 symptoms – a cough, temperature, loss of taste and smell or difficulty breathing – in a GP practice.

These patients will instead be referred to a COVID Centre. COVID Centres are staffed by GPs specifically to see people with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms, away from practices so that practices can continue to manage all our other patients, keeping everyone safe.

If the COVID Centre is not operating at a particular time, patients will be re-directed to the Emergency Department, if appropriate.

If you or someone you know is directed to a Covid Centre, I would urge you to attend. Please go and get assessed by the highly skilled staff working in the centres.

There were 109,697 Covid related queries in General Practice across Northern Ireland from 6 April to 22 November 2020 alone. This is all new work, on top of all the other work and phone calls we continue to do every day .

GPs have dealt with nearly 25,000 referrals to Covid Centres since they were established.

This winter, GPs have also managed to successfully deliver the flu vaccination programme to vast numbers of people, in a safe and socially distanced manner.

GPs continue to deliver the childhood vaccination programme, we are still providing women with smears – both essential programmes. We continue to provide hundreds of thousands of prescriptions every day. We continue to monitor patient’s health with bloods urine tests, blood pressure checks and all the other things we would be doing in a normal day’s work. We continue to care as normal for terminally ill patients, housebound patients in their own home and for those in care homes.

And now, GPs will be taking the lead in delivering the Covid-19 vaccination programme across Northern Ireland.

As you can see, GPs have adapted to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic but they have certainly not been sitting on the sidelines.

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