Time and again as an NHS surgeon, I’ve found the following to be true about our health service: no individual part can ever work in isolation. So, despite their encouraging commitment to innovation, Rishi Sunak’s plans to tackle ambulance delays have failed to fill me with hope. By missing the vital link between services and the need for a holistic approach to healing them, the plans fall fatefully short of a genuine solution. What’s really needed to get ambulances back on the road is a focus, instead, on GPs.
While the family doctor treating patients in their local practice may seem wholly separate from the blue lights and sirens; in reality, they couldn’t be more connected. The challenges and pressures faced by GPs are having a direct impact on our overwhelmed emergency services. To solve one, we must inevitably first cure the other.
This means starting at the root of the problem. With more than 25% of GP and practice nurse positions expected to be vacant within the next 10 years, staff shortages are significantly squeezing GP capacity.
This is only exacerbated by the clunky, outdated tools and systems at their disposal - making admin slow and time-intensive, and considerably restricting the time GPs have to spend with their patients. As a result, patients are struggling to book appointments and often face long waits to be seen. Increasingly, many are reaching crisis point - meaning the ambulance service and A&E teams are supporting more and more patients who are very sick because they couldn’t access early intervention.
So to effectively ease demand on emergency services and free up ambulances for those most in need, unlocking GP capacity is key. This begins with eliminating the time-intensive admin dominating doctors’ time. To achieve this, the Prime Minister’s plans for increased innovation must not overlook primary care. GPs need more effective digital tools, which enable them to communicate more easily with their colleagues in other services, and streamline the process of referring patients for treatment.
New systems are needed which enable data and information to be directly shared between the hundreds of different systems currently in use across the NHS. This will reduce the time GPs and practice staff must spend manually re-entering data when referring patients or recording treatment outcomes. Instead, they will have more time to spend with patients, increasing the number of available appointments and preventing the need for these patients to turn to A&E.
Focusing innovation on primary care can also help support greater collaboration between NHS services. We can hand GPs the tools to more easily communicate with senior colleagues at their local hospitals. By enabling them to share knowledge and advice in real-time, we can help them work together to improve patient triage and reduce the number of patients sent to hospital unnecessarily.
Rishi Sunak’s call for innovation in the fight to tackle ambulance delays is a step in the right direction. But it must be targeted more holistically, and build genuine connection between services, to be successful. We must not neglect primary care in the quest to get ambulances back on the road. GPs must be prioritised if we are to meaningfully ease demand on emergency services and reduce life-threatening wait times for care.
Dr Owain Rhys Hughes is the founder & CEO of Cinapsis