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Falling GP Numbers: What We Can Do About It!

After 20 minutes of listening to a tune far too upbeat for 8:30 on a Monday morning I got through to a receptionist at my local GP surgery. I was greeted with ‘All GP appointments have been filled for today. What is wrong with you? Is it urgent?’. While I was tempted to reply with ‘Surely holding the line for 20 minutes tells you it is urgent’, I went with ‘Yes, I do need an urgent appointment, what are my options for speaking to my GP?’. An unsatisfactory conversation later I gave up on trying to get an appointment that day.

As a member of the public who, luckily, very rarely requires a GP appointment, my reaction following this phone conversation was one of annoyance and frustration. As a Lecturer in Public Health and Wellbeing, it was a fitting example of the NHS facing unprecedented demand to use with my class that morning. In fact, my students were able to supply me with far more concerning stories, from battles with GP receptionists to long waits on hospital trolleys. This example led us to the question: How do we address this issue?

GPs and receptionists (and other heath professionals alike) are undoubtedly under a lot of pressure, and this cannot make for healthy and satisfying careers. It’s not surprising that for many years the NHS has struggled to attract junior doctors to become GPs and that many GPs are choosing to retire early. Recruiting a high quality workforce and then retaining them should be a government priority. The focus of the discussion between my students and I, however, was not how to go about doing this, but how to stop people needing GP and hospital visits in the first place.

There is undoubtedly a need for GPs and hospitals as there will always be health emergencies and people who suffer from illnesses and conditions that cannot be prevented, but many visits ARE preventable or could be better dealt with in other community settings. Important questions for my students and I are: How do we promote good health? How do we prevent ill-health? And how do we use community assets to take the pressure off NHS services?

Some of the answers to these questions lie in a life-course approach to health, mental health and wellbeing; we know that early life experience are important for health and that risk factors for health are cumulative as we get older. Some of the answers can also be found in recognising the role of and investing in innovations such as ‘social prescribing’, which is the ‘prescription’ of non-clinical activities or services within communities such as gardening projects, arts and crafts groups, yoga and weight-loss programmes for health issues such as depression and obesity.

A further crucial aspect necessary for reducing the pressure on our NHS is doing something about the social conditions in which people live their lives. As the renowned Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, Sir Michael Marmot, has questioned, ‘Why treat people and send them back to the conditions that made then sick?’. These are just some of the issues we explore on our BSc (Hons) Public Health and Wellbeing programme at Wrexham Glyndwr University. We also have a ‘masterclass’ and series of ‘light night learning’ sessions that are free events open to the public where we introduce and discuss these challenges.

About the author

Dr Sharon Wheeler

Dr Sharon Wheeler

Dr Sharon Wheeler is the Programme Leader for Public Health and Wellbeing at Wrexham Glyndwr University. Sharon’s research has spanned a whole range of topics, including childhood obesity and the National Child Measurement Programme, the (re)production of inequalities in education and leisure contexts through families, and the links between parenting cultures, children’s organised activities and health and wellbeing. In her current research, Sharon is exploring the suitability and effectiveness of using ‘green exercise’ to promote health and wellbeing among families.

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