Looking out on the rain, memories quickly fade of, for once, that glorious bank holiday weekend.
In GP land you may have noticed a lighter week too, because demand is predictably sensitive to weather – whether warm sunshine or heavy snow.
We need to qualify the effect however, because if your system is book ahead and wait, lower demand only shows up as a smaller backlog and maybe less pressure on reception. You will still see the same number of patients who have patiently waited whatever the urgency of their need, and it will feel like a treadmill.
The point of a demand-flow system is that there’s always plenty of capacity for the predicted demand, and if it comes in below prediction, you can enjoy the sunshine. A colleague of mine visited one practice we work with on Thursday lunchtime and there were just no patients, time for chat.
Now with summer on the way it is of course the perfect time to put that demand-flow system in place but let me tell you about a real problem we are struggling with.
I can name three practices right now where they are very clear on the challenges they face, they can’t cope with the workload, they know the service is terrible, and their receptionists are getting abuse every single day.
They’ve done a thorough analysis, all the surveys, know exactly what to do, and four GP partners can hardly wait to get going. But one, or perhaps two, partners have dug their heels in.
I’m a great fan of the partner model for a host of reasons, and I haven’t seen a better one, but it has its drawbacks. One partner can veto any change. They are condemning the others to live with the same or worsening situation. Why isn’t there a veto on doing nothing?
Fundamentally I think this imbalance in favour of inaction is holding GPs back, perhaps the whole profession, even if a majority can see what needs to be done.
Are you in this situation or do you have any suggestions?
Meanwhile two north east practices launch on Monday and let’s hope they enjoy the summer.
PS: One who did act was Dr Sue Arnott and she joins us for this Thursday’s webinar at 1pm.
Some background on how she came to be running a 4,700 practice as a single hander here.
Many have asked for the first in the series recorded, so it’s here, 45 minutes, “Exploding the myths of online consultations”
Increasingly practices ask us how others use askmyGP, so we have collected here examples with agreement to be in the public domain.
Please be aware that they are all busy GP practices so have not committed to answering in person an unlimited number of queries. They are all different in some respects from your practice, yet they all share common features of a registered list of patients whom the GPs are committed to serve.
Concord Medical Practice – 14,500 suburban family practice, north of Bristol. SAPC poster.
Central Surgery Oadby – 8,700 suburban Leicester
Balaam St Surgery – 5,300 East London practice
Every practice will work out their own mode of operation, and with our help can seek to optimise effectiveness and efficiency.
GPs are talking an awful lot about online consultations these days, with another BMJ article (paywalled) out last month from Martin Marshall.
From many conversations I find most divide into three groups:
- the wishful who expect online access magically to divert patients away
- the fearful, convinced they will be buried in trivia when patients have a new way to get at them
- the conflicted who believe both the above at the same time
if you’re familiar with the published evidence (BJGP on eCONsult 2017) you’d be very skeptical of any claims.
But having managed well over 100,000 online consults in two versions of askmyGP over three years, we’ve gained quite a bit of experience of what doesn’t work. We still have a number of practices where it doesn’t work.
So which group is closest to the truth?
I’ll be examining the emerging evidence in the first of our webinar series next Thursday 3rd May 2018 1pm, 45 minutes
It’s already booking up fast and though free we have limited participants on our new Zoom platform (which we love by the way).
There’s a fourth group of course, and we’ll come on to them in the next webinar but first it’s important to understand what doesn’t work. We’ll look at technology, implementation, even beliefs and I can tell you, innovation is over 90% failure so much of the hard won evidence will be painful to relate.
Do join us next Thursday at 1pm.
askmyGP & GP Access Ltd
PS: I’ve had to update the blog from last week from Dr Barry Sullman at Balaam St Surgery. I would never dare to promise the new life he leads. And he can’t stop talking about it.
“My costs have shot through the roof” says Barry with a chuckle. “It’s the school holidays and I’m taking the family out to restaurants every night” (a list follows, burgers, pizzas, curries).
Barry Sullman first made contact with us on 28th Feb and I met some of the family on a video conference because Sunday was the only time he had a minute to spare. He was working until 8pm and secretly wanted to finish at 6pm so he could rejoin the human race. To be on the safe side he told me 5 but I didn’t promise.
Two weeks since launch he tells me he’s going home at 4. Except for Thursday when he phoned me at 1, from home, complaining that his salaried GP had nothing to do most of the afternoon, one patient booked at 3.45.
So he’s changed his plans to recruit a GP and instead will take on an ANP to run the shift until 6.30, CPR trained, as he’ll refer appropriate patients and his work is done by 4.
That should pay for a few nights out.
He impresses upon me the difference between telephone triage (which he’s tried) and digital triage: now he doesn’t spend ages on calls which are really non-medical. Reception have done them, or he’s emailed a message. So he’s not drowning or suffocating.
He’s prepped for the consultation, may have looked up previous notes. He’s impressed by what the patients write, quite detailed, even helps with the non-English speakers. He’s choosing who to see face to face, no more, and it’s all done today.
He doesn’t have to up type all the symptoms, just copies into the clinical system.
He has gone straight to 70% of demand arriving online, which is 250 per week, and it’s ever so simple how they’ve done it – while not forcing anyone or shutting the door for those who can’t. Patients are happy, reception is peaceful.
Barry epitomises the GP who is self reliant, independent, committed long term to his patients, business oriented and decisive. But his Balaam St practice is different from yours – deprived East London, young, multi-ethnic and many non-English speakers.
Maybe your practice is more like Joanna’s: prosperous, elderly, all speaking the purest Somerset. They launched this week too, having just lost a GP partner and another on holiday. With a quarter of their capacity removed, and costs saved, they’ve transformed the service in a single week, all patients sorted. Had to scrabble around to find things for the locum to do on some days.
She tells me “We couldn’t have done it any other way. This is infinitely better.”
Barry, Joanna, dozens of others: big smiles. You? Feeling overwhelmed, helpless perhaps? What is the difference between them, their practices and you? Nothing at all, just that they made a decision and got on with it.
A week later on 27/4/18 a GP in a Welsh practice emailed these questions:
Could I ask you first how long since you launched the system ?
As with any change to our appointment system, there is always a honeymoon period, then the rot sets in again, I wondered if you felt any loss of efficiency the longer you run AskmyGP?
And some more specifics:
1)How did you/ do you manage ‘walk-ins’?
2)Was there any backlash against loss of the GP early morning slots for working folk?
3)Do you work with Nurse Practitioners? We have three who see a lot of our minor illness.
4) Can you give me examples of which appointments you do allow to be booked at reception ( CDM? Nurses?)
PPS: My colleagues and I absolutely love the work we do with practices like the above. But do spare a thought for us at this difficult time. My least favourite activity is the essay writing contest which is NHS England’s Dynamic Purchasing System for Online Consultations, a Sisyphean task as meaningless as it is mindkilling.
If I may use an analogy, our Digital Transformation Strategy Engagement Delivery Leads go to a gallery and see an inspirational painting. A painting can’t be painted without paint, so they think it’s about paint. They specify the paint in finite detail, colours, hues, formulation, viscosity, non-toxicity and so on, with which specification all suppliers must comply. By Monday at 12:00:00.
They are surprised however when the outcomes are revealed – instead of a series of Leonardos, Picassos and Monets, the precisely implemented procurement process has produced brown walls.
With those lines from the terraces of Murrayfield ringing in our English ears, it’s a night to celebrate north of the border. And there’s more to celebrate for a handful of Scotland’s GPs.
Why are patients flocking to register at Newarthill Medical Practice in North Lanarkshire?
Very simple, the access is brilliant. Where neighbouring practices are making patients wait three weeks, Dr Ashish Vijayan can sort them out the same day.
You know what I’m going to say next, but there’s a surprise to come. Yes, he launched askmyGP as a whole system just three months ago and loves it, along with his patients evidently.
The secret is to have time for the patients who need it, just the right time for the right patients.
If you’ve followed this blog for long you’ll know that’s only about one in three, while the others still need help, but it can by remotely and much faster by phone, and now faster yet by secure message.
When Ashish first got in touch in the autumn he was swamped, not knowing what to do with his high demand population, many quite deprived in the ex-mining and steel area. (you might have seen that North Lanarks is the only place in Britain to offer free school meals at weekends).
But they’ve really gone for it, with a fantastic reception team helping patients to go online, and if they can’t putting them on the system too for the doctor.
They are doing 170 online requests every week, the vast majority of all their demand. It’s the most unlikely place to be leading the digital revulution in general practice.
While this week’s BMA News is a cover to cover Moanathon, Ashish is positively bursting with optimism.
The surprise: he’s a single hander, and from 2,900 patients in December, he’s gained nearly 200 since then.
So that’s 50% more than the average fte GP list. Think about the national shortage of GPs, then think again.
So you arrive at your practice on Monday morning, looking forward to what the day may bring. The screen is nearly blank as only one patient prebooked last week, who wanted to wait.
Demand comes in quickly now and about half the patients have kindly written down their problems in some detail. You can quickly triage them, about a third you’ll choose to see, another third you’ll phone, a third you’ll send a message – they wanted that, not to waste their time and yours coming in.
Other patients have left a message with reception and you phone them, or delegate to another clinician. The sense of control comes from you deciding as a GP how to help each patient – you’re good at this.
Now after coffee break the first patients are coming down, and you can give each one the time they need. It feels more personal, you can build relationships because some of them have chosen to see you – which they can, because you’re here today, der.
The afternoon session has less than a third the new demand, so it’s more relaxed with much of the time seeing patients contacted this morning and then catching up on paperwork. After 5 very little comes in so you take it in turns staying until 6.30 to switch off the lights.
It’s such a difference from before you changed. Back then, you were constantly frustrated about endless extras, 14 hour days, and the diabolical duty doctor rota. But this is no longer a problem. Every day is pretty much alike, bar the infinitely intriguing variety of patients.
I’ll stop here because at this stage, I’m quite sure that you are laughing your head off.
The idea of a world where you’re feeling in control from the start of the day, able to offer the best professional help to all your patients, and go home with nothing left undone is the holy grail for most GPs.
It’s something which practices we’ve helped take for granted and achieve easily. It seems to come naturally to them.
And yet it seems to fantastical… So preposterous…. So unachievable…. to you, that I might as well have been describing a world where man has landed on Saturn.
Why is this the case?
Many doctors believe it simply can’t be done. That balance of work and fulfillment cannot happen, because demand is infinite.
I don’t believe that at all, and that’s based on the evidence.
I believe GPs are almost universally making two very significant mistakes when it comes to their operating system – mistakes that are sabotaging their chances of success.
If you overcame them, you would discover that a balanced workload was not out of reach at all.
I’ll tell you about the first one on Monday. Watch out for that email…
PS by the way, if you are concerned about claims being made for NHS 111 digital, you may be interested in a report which has come to light.
NHS England has trialled four digital versions of NHS111 in an attempt to shift channel from telephone to online.
An internal report dated December 2017 and obtained through HSJ reveals the astonishingly low take up of these heavily marketed pilots. Download the full report here:
Data contained within the report shows the four trials covered a population of 7.5m for the period February to June 2017. The total completed digital triages came to 8671.
A separate chart shows NHS111 telephone volume at around 1 million per month, for a population of 50m.
The digital trials covered around 15% of the population, and over the 5 months of the trial would see pro rata around (15% x 1,000,000 x 5 months) = 750,000 calls.
Digital triages therefore accounted for 8671/750,000 = 1.2%
We know that the digital option was heavily marketed in the four pilot areas, in the public domain, GP surgeries and through IVR messages. We have no idea of the costs incurred.
We can see by comparing the charts that conversions from “I registered or downloaded the digital solution” to “I completed a triage” range from about 60% for Babylon and Sensely to 30% for Pathways and 10% for Expert 24.
Figures given on dispositions are compared to 111 phone triage dispositions and what is striking is the similarity. Much is made of the 18% advised to self-care. However, it is very disturbing to see 20% advised to call 999 or go to emergency. Compared with GP audits of their demand, which they rate at around 0.5% as emergency, these are astonishing numbers. Work we have analysed with a GP led OOH service showed GP disposition to ambulance at 1.4%.
Following the advice of the algorithms would multiply use of emergency services by a factor of 10 to 20.
Worse than this, we suspect that the low take up means the diseases entered are highly unrepresentative of the overal disease burden, and are likely skewed to conditions which are “easy to triage” and therefore less acute.
Given the above analyses, and if you knew the eye-watering costs incurred, what would you do?
PS The conclusion of the report’s author may surprise you, page 4:
The learning from these pilots supplemented with data from other health systems and from
other online services would continue to support the case for an online interface for urgent
care. This evaluation does not recommend one product over another but demonstrates that all
products have some similarities and differences but all products tend to support channel shift
and management of demand whilst providing patients with a good experience.
To gain further understanding of NHS111 Online and the impact on the health system, larger
data sets and linked data will need to be considered. Therefore, the expansion of pilots and
further analysis will enable a more robust evaluation.
When there’s a chink of light in the dead of winter (and wall to wall NHS crisis on the BBC) we have something to celebrate.
I spoke with Dr Sue Arnott, who runs a practice of 4,600 patients in a traditional ex-mining community in central Scotland. She had tried for months and failed to recruit a GP, so is now running single handed, supported by an ANP and further part time nurses.
She explained how they are now up to about 60% of demand online, of which she responds by secure message to about 60%, largely without even a phone call. It means she has time for all the patients’ needs, in the appropriate mode, today, and is on top of demand, feeling in control.
How? There’s no coercion involved, just that the receptionists point the patients to the website, show them where to start and help as needed. If not possible, they’ll take the request by phone. And patients are very very happy.
When we were first in touch in the autumn I was more than a little concerned about the few GP sessions for the list size, and said they’d need to go all out for change. They have, they love it and they are providing a fabulous service. That’s my cause for celebration, because anyone can do it.
Philip Hammond is not going to bung any more money into the NHS. Even if he did, Jeremy Hunt is not going to magic 5,000 GPs out of thin air. (and I submit that it’s immoral to recruit them from nations where doctors are even scarcer).
Patient demand is not going to go away because we tell them to self-care more (we’ve been telling them for decades. They know).
So we have the demand that we have, and the GPs that we have. But by changing the system in every practice in the UK, which is up to every GP in the UK, we can manage.
Indeed we can thrive, like one practice in Lanarkshire.
PRESS RELEASE 3 January 2018:
askmyGP overcomes NHS Choices search gremlins with new free webapp
Patients are being urged more than ever to self-care, in order to cut demand on NHS GPs in the winter season. While NHS Choices provides high quality advice, until now searching the site has been hit and miss.
askmyGP, the leading online consultation platform, announces today a free version which lets patients search NHS Choices with a unique smart search algorithm.
Founder Harry Longman explains the reasoning:
“We’ve always directed patients to seek self-care advice from NHS Choices. It covers virtually every medical condition, the information is clearly presented, evidence based, and free. It carries no advertising and never tries to sell to patients, whether medications or consultations, as other sites do.”
But the weak area has been search. Put “Back of knee hurting” into NHS Choices and you’ll see “La Bomba dance workout video” – not exactly what you were hoping for.
The same phrase entered into askmyGP takes you straight to knee pain and its potential causes.
Many similar examples are exactly as entered by real patients. “3yr old holds his breath”, NHS Choices: Your guide to an echocardiogram. Or Dentures. Perhaps not.
“Had coff for over 5 weeks”, gets you Norman’s Hip Op video.
Try all these in the askmyGP demo site and compare with NHS Choices itself, even though all our content is provided by NHS Choices. What patients want is a smart but sympathetic search which won’t quibble over how they spell diarrhoea (we’ve found the right page with hundreds of spellings in askmyGP, from diria to dhearrorrea).
We don’t believe NHS Choices content should be reformatted and sold back to the NHS for private profit, as some suppliers have done. What we sell is the askmyGP online consultation system, helping more GPs and patients every week (over 25,000 episodes managed so far).
We’re giving away the very best we can offer to help patients self-care. The askmyGP search webapp is available from January 2018 to all NHS practices and organisations, no strings attached, it’s free, for everyone and for anything.
Note to editors: askmyGP is provided by GP Access Ltd, founded in 2011 with the vision “To transform access to medical care.” We are serving NHS GP practices, CCGs and Health Boards in all four countries of the UK.
Chief Executive Harry Longman, 01509 816293, mobile 07939 148618
I guess that like me a lot of your time is spent grinding through one (damn) thing after another. In the short days and long nights it can seem like more grind than ever.
So when plans struggled over for years suddenly work it’s a very special day. It feels like the sun coming out on the brilliant white of fresh snow.
Dr AV, a single hander GP in Scotland with 2,900 patients emails me: “Best Friday I have had in 2 years!?”
The reason? He’s in control, he’s reached 50% of demand online, the rest by phone, and he and the team are dealing with everything as it comes in. In the middle of December he writes “We have free slots – many in fact – on any given day !?”
Sorry I don’t even know how to write emojis but I think that means a cheesy grin.
Actually, he’s not the only one, Dr SA has done the same, and she has even more patients. I’m using initials because they don’t necessarily want you all to ring them up at once.
What was it that suddenly made the difference? Last week I promised to tell you if it continued. Well it’s so ridiculously simple that I’m almost embarrassed to say.
We’ve had this idea on one of our powerpoint slides for months, but never really pushed it because no one had tried it so we didn’t know it would work.
The receptionists guide the patient to the practice website and get them to try askmyGP. They are even more effective than the GP giving a telephone message. They love it – they feel empowered too, and when the requests come in they are better equipped to deal with them – many are answered by secure email.
The GPs love it because every single one is saving minutes, and when you’ve 3,000 patients to manage, and preparing for Christmas too, that counts for a lot.
One terribly important point I must make: there is no forcing patients online. You may hear of other case studies where the telephone option has effectiively been removed.. We refuse to condone such an approach – in fact, telephone service improves.
Look, the vast majority of things that we try, fail. You don’t hear about them, and we try a lot, and some of the failures are painfully costly. So when something works, we might as well ? about it.
Anyway, you can see what the receptionists and GPs are directing patients to do on Bramley Demo Surgery.
askmyGP & GP Access Ltd
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PS You might even say the struggle goes back to 1981 when the electronics lecturer is trying to explain to thicko engineering undergraduate why asynchronous communication is so much more efficient. He wins.