'Staffing problems and poor morale' affecting GP out of hours services

Credit: PA

Out of hours GP services are "unsustainable in their current form" warn GPs.

The chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Wales, Dr Rebecca Payne, who is also a leading expert in out of hours care, said: "out of hours all too often is left unsupported [and] under resourced."

Dr Payne was responding to a report from the Wales Audit office, which said of GP out of hours that "staffing problems and poor morale are putting services under pressure."

The findings, according to Dr Payne, come as no surprise, but are still concerning.

Out of hours services are unsustainable in their current form. GPs and other staff are being asked to work in a difficult environment and patients can’t always access the services they need in a timely fashion.

Secondary care dominated health boards now run out of hours in most parts of Wales and they have neglected their primary care responsibilities. At times of pressure help and support is given to A&E, but out of hours all too often is left unsupported, under resourced and - despite the dedication and commitment of staff working in the service - unable to compensate for these wider system failures.

Addressing this needs leadership from Welsh Government and from health boards. There are simple steps that can be taken right now.

We want to see more call handlers, addressing call abandonment rates to ensure patients get through to people.

We also want to see better use made of other healthcare professionals working in out of hours services, better use of technology, and employment conditions that protect staff working in a high-risk environment.

– Dr Rebecca Payne, Royal College of GPs in Wales

Out of hours GP services provide urgent primary care when surgeries are closed. The Wales Audit office says it's report shows out of hours services are under significant strain - despite patients being largely positive about the service they receive.

The Wales Audit office says its report "found that national standards on the timeliness of appointments are not being met and that patients need to be given better information about how to access services."

This report highlights the urgent need to strengthen out of hours services and address some long standing workforce challenges. Patients also need better information on how to access services.

It is essential that the Welsh Government and Health Boards work together to implement my recommendations and develop sustainable improvements to these vital services.

– Auditor General Huw Vaughan-Thomas

Among eight recommendations made in the report are:

  • Standardising patient information on NHS websites and GP phone lines.
  • Doing more to make out-of-hours services more attractive places to work.
  • Developing a national workforce plan to tackle staffing problems.
  • Doing more to spread and encourage more innovative practices.

The Welsh Government says it is aware of the strains facing the service.

The report recognises that patients are generally happy with the out of hours primary care service they receive. However, we are aware of the strains the service can face and action is already underway to address the majority of recommendations made in the report.

– Welsh Government spokesperson