Staff shortages at Bedfordshire GP surgeries leave patients hanging on the phone for 'up to an hour'

Aggressive behaviour towards receptionists has led to staff shortages

By Euan Duncan, Local Democracy Reporter
Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 12:39 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th September 2021, 9:25 am

Aggressive behaviour towards receptionists has led to staff shortages at GP surgeries in Bedfordshire, making it harder for patients to access healthcare, a meeting heard.

More reception staff are needed to answer the phone to prevent patients abandoning attempts to seek medical advice after being kept on hold too long, according to a Biggleswade councillor.

Director of primary care at the BLMK Clinical Commissioning Group Nicky Poulain was updating Central Bedfordshire Council's social care, health and housing overview and scrutiny committee on GP access.

Patients are facing long waits on the phone as they try to get through to GP surgeries

"There are face-to-face appointments," she said. "The primary care access campaign launched on August 2 is being done collectively as a system.

"Sometimes the telephone just cannot cope with the volume of calls and there's not a waiting system.

"Increasingly we've had GP practices report back to us about patients being quite aggressive to the workforce, particularly reception staff, and GP practices have lost a lot of staff."

Independent Biggleswade South councillor Hayley Whitaker explained: "It took three emails to get a call waiting system implemented at one of our surgeries.

"That's evidence three times to say: 'I've got residents showing me they tried to call the surgery 100 times this morning. I can see it on their phones and they can't get through'.

"And if that's happening across the board that first barrier is access. If you can't get through that barrier, it doesn't matter what amazing services you've set up when you can't even answer the phone.

"That's telephony, but it's also about bodies to answer the phone at the other end because if you've got 50 people ahead of you in the queue, and that's not unheard of, are you going to wait?

"Are you going to put it off?" she asked. "If it's for a screening test, I'll wait and call another day.

"We need to employ more reception staff who can answer the phone. It's quite straightforward."

Conservative Dunstable Central councillor Carole Hegley said: "I bet there's not a councillor within CBC who couldn't share some of the same views.

"It's that widespread and that much of a systemic problem across the whole of the area. There's a great deal of frustration in the system. This has been going on for a long time and it just got worse.

"Some companies have service standards where you have to answer the phone within a certain amount of time or number of rings.

"It cannot be acceptable that we're letting people hang on the phone for up to an hour.

"I wonder why the practice managers aren't getting on top of this," she added. "There has to be someone on the commissioning side to lay down some standards of responsiveness.

"This is such a burning issue. We need to know what's going to happen about this in the future."

Ms Poulain replied: "I'm not being defensive, but because it's a national contract the CCG doesn't have the power base to impose any quality standard on the telephony.

"I don't believe there are practices out there wanting to give a bad service. The 111 service should be picked up within 60 seconds.

"My rates range from the worst at 26 per cent up to sometimes 70 or 80 per cent."

Referring to the GP access improvement task group, she said. "I want to give assurance that managing the variation of the practices is what my team are avidly doing.

"It's not a cosy comfort relationship. The feedback today will be fed into those meetings."