Desperate daughter called GP 286 times in vain to book mum urgent appointment

By Joe Morgan & Lydia Chantler-Hicks

A worried daughter called a GP practice 286 times in vain, in a bid to book her 84-year-old mother an urgent appointment for a suspected eye infection.

Elaine Harrad, a Kent local, first rang her local practice for her mum Barbara Shonk in the morning, the minute it opened, only to find a full queue was ahead of her.

Her call to the Heron Medical Practice, in Herne Bay, was subsequently terminated.

She then spent 45 minutes ringing the surgery before eventually getting through on her 286th attempt, but found herself 30th in line to speak to a receptionist.

At this point, the catering manager requested a call back, but by the time she was called back almost 40 minutes later, there were no GP appointments left.

Mrs Shonk was offered a telephone consultation, but her daughter felt her eye needed to be seen in person by a doctor.

She eventually took her mum to the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in Herne Bay, where she was seen immediately and given antibiotics.

Her call to the Heron Medical Practice, in Herne Bay, was subsequently terminated (file image) (Getty Images)

Mrs Harrad has said the huge spike in demand in the wake of the pandemic is having an impact on patient care - particularly older and vulnerable people.

Both of her parents were 84, she said, and were unlikely to persevere with this system if they were doing it themselves.

"I'm lucky I have a smart telephone, and I just press 'redial’,” she pointed out.

"My mum just wouldn't have been able to get an appointment, and it was something that she needed to see someone about.

"They've got me, so I just keep on trying and trying. But a lot of elderly people don't have that, and I'm sure a lot of them are just going through the system and being missed.”

Mrs Harrod said it “wasn’t okay”, that with no one to fight their corner, elderly patienst were likely to just go under the radar.

"It's not okay either to just tell people to go online as a lot of people either don't know how to use or don't have access to computers.

The sentiment during the pandemic of looking after our elderly and vulnerable seemed to have disappeared, she said, with the sentiment now seeming to be the opposite.

"Come six months down the line, there's going to be a large amount of older people with undiagnosed illnesses and then the NHS is going to be overwhelmed again."

Heron Medical Practice says it is experiencing "a huge increase in demand" as it deals with a backlog sparked by the pandemic.

The practice - which comprises St Anne's Surgery, Beltinge and Reculver Surgery, and Hersden Surgery - is calling for those who are able to do so, to book appointments online, freeing up phone lines for elderly patients and those without computer access.

A spokesman said the practice was “sorry to hear about the difficulties experienced by this patient” and was pleased she was able to get a positive resolution at the Queen Victoria Hospital.

"General practice across the country is facing a huge increase in demand,” they said. “The NHS Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group is working with practices and partners to address the pressures brought about by the backlog of patients who have not been seen during the pandemic."

Regarding the demand for appointments, business manager Helen Sutton said she had “never seen anything like it” despite having worked in the NHS for nearly 22 years.

"Before Covid, we were always busy in the morning,” she said. “From 8am until about 11.30am the phone didn't stop, but then by the afternoon it was just the odd call and it would be quieter.”

But now, she said it was “full on” until around 6.30pm.

“It just never, ever, ever relents,” she added.

"We can't magic up more appointments, so for the rest of the day the reception staff don't have any appointments to give. It's really really difficult, and I feel sorry for everybody - the patients and the staff."

Despite the lack of availability at the clinic, she said other venues were available to those with access to computers, such as the online e-consultation form introduced during the pandemic and a list of email contacts available on Heron Medical Practice's Facebook page.

There was also a 24-hour automated telephone system allowing patients to book appointments out-of-hours, and the practice is steadily increasing its face-to-face appointments.

Dr Simon Dunn added: "We are aware that our phone lines are very busy and understand the frustrations that not being able to get through on the telephone causes. We are working hard to be able to answer telephone calls as quickly as possible.

"Although we are not oversubscribed, we have far more of our patients contacting us at any one time than would have been the case before the pandemic.”

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