Frustrated patients “gave up” trying to get GP appointments having hit log-jammed switchboards. 

Healthwatch Oxfordshire, an organisation that seeks to shape health and social care services by representing the view of the public, also found some people have even been “making up information” in order to get their desired outcome through online portals.

A report on the experiences of patients contacting the county’s surgeries, which ran from September to November last year, looked at feedback from 700 people and prompted recommendations to Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), the body that plans, buys and oversees health services.

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It suggests more technical support and staff for surgeries, including telephone systems, “comprehensive” online tools, sufficient and supported care navigators and reception staff with additional resources to meet demand at peak hours with flexible and extended hours for patients to get in touch. 

Glyn Alcock, community involvement officer at Healthwatch Oxfordshire, told the Oxfordshire Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee: “A lot of people talked about sitting in queues and the frustrations around not being able to make appointments on the telephone.

“They did comment on the callback function, which enables you to leave your details to get called back, people found that very useful, but there are limitations for those who are at work and unable to take calls because you don’t know when you are getting that call."

He added that eConsult – an online portal designed to quickly signpost patients to the right services – was deemed to be good for “non-urgent” issues but “quite cumbersome to fill in” with people “making up information” to “manipulate the system” to get the right outcome or avoid unnecessarily being referred to 111 or a hospital.

Mr Alcock continued: “People tend to say that once they are through, the clinical care is excellent. It is more about the frustrations when you feel unwell and you are sitting in a telephone queue or you cannot get through at all. 

“A couple of people did mention that they gave up calling so there are clear risks about sick people who lose hope in trying to get through. There are obvious consequences if you give up trying.”

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A response from Julie Dandridge, deputy director and head of primary care at the CCG, was annexed to the report, vowing to review eConsult “to ensure it meets the needs of both the patient and the practice” and invest in a “more consistent and efficient” telephone system as well as more GP and nurse appointments, receptionists and administrators. 

Committee chair Councillor Jane Hanna OBE said: “Again, it is coming back to workforce. It is something this committee has highlighted, as everybody knows it is the main challenge in the system and part of a national scenario.”