Media vitriol is harming patient trust

We are outraged at the media coverage on remote consultations that is running in some of the nationals and online today.

College Chair Martin Marshall has a written an opinion piece in HSJ, defending hardworking GPs who - largely as a result of remote consultations - have continued to deliver essential care and services to patients throughout the pandemic.

He hits back at the ‘constant barrage of vitriol’ against GPs in the media and makes the point that the real issue in general practice is not about face-to-face versus remote consultations, but about chronic GP shortages caused by more than a decade of under-investment.

You can read it in full here:

The unexpected death of any patient receiving NHS care is always shocking and while we cannot comment on individual cases, our condolences go to anyone who has lost a loved one during the pandemic. 

However, media coverage of coroners’ reports (Concern raised over death of five patients seen remotely by GPs, HSJ 9 Sept) is contributing to a worrying narrative that has been gradually building up over the course of the pandemic. That remote consultations are substandard, harmful to patients and are being used by ‘lazy’ GPs as an excuse for not seeing patients face to face in the surgery.

As well as being inaccurate and untrue. This narrative in itself is harmful as it undermines public trust and confidence in remote consultations. When thousands of patients are being assessed effectively and safely in this way in general practice every day. They have been since long before the pandemic.

Patients are being led to believe that they haven’t had a ‘real’ consultation unless they’ve seen their doctor in person and this can leave them feeling ‘fobbed off’ or cause them unnecessary worry and distress that they haven’t been properly diagnosed.

Remote care is not substandard, and GPs work incredibly hard to deliver the same high-quality, care for their patients, whether a consultation is remote or face to face. Another misconception is that remote consultations take less GP time, when many actually take longer.

The move to mainly remote consultations from the start of the pandemic was in line with government guidelines. It was necessary for infection control and to keep patients – and GP teams – as safe as possible. Face to face appointments and physical examinations have continued throughout, wherever clinically appropriate and safe to do so.

Crucially, remote consultations have enabled GPs to carry on working, providing care and essential services to millions of patients at a time when other parts of the NHS had to shut down, and when many patients were reluctant to use the NHS for fear of catching the virus.

We hear a lot of negativity around remote consultations, but we rarely hear about those patients who are very satisfied with being seen remotely by a GP and appreciate the convenience because it means they don’t have to take time off work or arrange childcare. There are some patients who find it easier to discuss more personal details about their health in a remote setting.

We know that many patients will always prefer to see their doctor face to face, and many GPs prefer this method too as it can be easier to pick up on soft signs which can be useful in making a diagnosis.

Face to face consulting is at the heart of general practice and will always be an essential part of it. Over half of all GP appointments are now face to face and there is room for both methods post-pandemic, based on shared decision-making between the patient and their GP in line with individual health needs and circumstances.

Despite the easing of restrictions, this pandemic is far from over and we cannot afford to be complacent. The rise in the number of Covid infections means that we must remain cautious, and take precautions to reduce the spread of infection, particularly in health care settings such as GP surgeries where vulnerable patients are being seen on a daily basis.

What we cannot allow to continue is the concerted and totally unwarranted campaign of criticism that has been waged against GPs. By large swathes of the national media throughout the pandemic.

Patients and GPs are on the same side and we share their frustrations at having to face long waits for appointments or when they can’t even get through to the surgery.

The real issue here is that the GP workforce is no longer big enough to meet the demands of a growing and ageing population. This was the case before the pandemic and the past 18 months have further exacerbated it.

Successive governments have failed to invest in our service for more than a decade and GP numbers have declined while our workload has escalated in volume and complexity. The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs fell by 4.5% between September 2015 and March 2021, meaning that the ratio of patients to FTE GPs has increased by almost 10%. 

NHS pressures are not confined to hospitals and we urgently need the current Government to deliver on its 2019 election manifesto. Pledge of 6,000 additional GPs and 26,000 more members of the wider practice team.

The constant barrage of vitriol being aimed at our profession from various quarters is degrading and demoralising to hardworking GPs who are trying to do the best they can for their patients in the face of enormous pressures.

We need the media to back general practice so that GPs get the support they need to deliver the care that patients need and deserve.

Professor Martin Marshall is Chair of the Royal College of GPs and a GP in East London

Further information

(For media only)

RCGP Press office – 020 3188 7633/7494/7574
Out of hours: 020 3188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 53,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.