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Health / ‘We need your help’ to manage perfect storm, health board pleads

GP practices are struggling to cope with high demand and reduced capacity

There are two GP vacancies at Lerwick Health Centre. Photo: Shetland News
Lerwick health centre only accepted emergency calls for a time last week.

LOCAL people are being asked to help NHS Shetland ride a “perfect storm” of increased demand and reduced capacity by thinking twice before calling their GP surgery for an appointment.

Medical director Dr Kirsty Brightwell said patients with minor ailments should initially consider speaking to their pharmacist, consult the NHS Inform website or call NHS24 before contacting their GP surgery.

Due to GP shortages and the impact of staff self-isolating, Lerwick Health Centre was only accepting emergencies last Thursday and Friday, while the Brae Health Centre was down to one GP for a time last week. The Levenwick medical centre also reported ongoing staffing pressure.

Meanwhile a locum who was due to travel to Shetland to stand in at the Lerwick GP practice this week was unable to do so because the ferry and all flights were fully booked over the weekend.

The health board’s primary care manager Lisa Watt said GP surgeries were “really, really busy” catching up and working through a backlog created since the start of the pandemic.

Dr Brightwell said GP practices have stayed open during the last 17 months but with the country slowly emerging from the pandemic the workload was increasing.

While the requirement for social distancing is to be lifted on Monday across the country, the health and care sector is to continue with the two-metre social distancing rule, creating capacity issues.

NHS Shetland’s medical director Kirsty Brightwell.

Dr Brightwell said the message she would like to get out to the community was a complicated one.

“We still have the situation where the Scottish Government are saying not to see people face to face unless it is required,” she said, adding: “If you are not well, we want to see you.”

She added that people should also consult the community pharmacist and check the NHS Inform website for health advice.

“We are prioritising calls, but we also would like people to use the wider staff, the advanced nurse practitioners, the advance physio at the Lerwick Health Centre and the practice nursing staff who are really skilled and capable in managing quite a lot of ‘presentation’ – and then the GPs are able to support that,” the medical director said.

“The bottom line is we are here and we are open, and we want to take your calls, but in order to manage that at the moment with the complexity of staffing shortage and increased demand, we need your help.

“We need people thinking: ‘can I look this up on NHS Inform, can I speak to somebody else, the community pharmacist for example’, and if not we absolutely not telling you not to call us, but we need you to work with us.”

Lisa Watt said she has never seen GP practices as busy in the last 15 years. “I have been involved with primary care since 2006, and I have never seen the level of demand that we currently have, and there are a number of reasons for that,” she said.

“Last year some of the screening programmes nationally were suspended such as bowl screening and breast screening. They then came back but there is a catch-up with all those people who should have been seen at that time.

“We also had a lot of people who put off contacting their GP practices, and what we are seeing now is quite a few people coming forward.”

Meanwhile, Watt was able to confirm that a permanent GP for the UK’s most northerly surgery in Unst has been recruited.

However, vacancies at the Bixter, Yell, Lerwick and Brae health centres remain unfilled with little interest shown so far.

Brightwell said the recruitment problems were not limited to Shetland or rural Scotland but were very much a national issue as there is simply not enough GPs in Scotland.

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