Our regular columnist, Steve Herbert,  Head of Benefits Strategy for Howden Employee Benefits, shares his monthly blog with Employer News readers.  This month, he explains why quick and easy access to a General Practitioner (GP) is important for employees and their families, and should also be a key concern for employers too. 

There are perhaps two subjects that the British like moaning about the most.  One is our ever-changing weather; the other is waiting for things to happen.

What we are waiting for hardly matters.  It might be for public transport, service in a restaurant, or delivery of a package.  Any or all of these delays are certainly inconvenient, and can disrupt our best laid plans.

But how much more important is it to avoid delays when trying to see the family doctor?  After all, an extended wait in seeing your GP could well lead to a late diagnosis, and a delay in commencing corrective treatment.

How difficult is it to see a GP?

The problems associated with securing an appointment with the family doctor were highlighted last month by the BBC.  Their research demonstrates the significant difference in GP numbers to registered patients around the UK.  In one area – Swale in Kent – there is only one GP to every 3,300 patients, whereas Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire was a much more acceptable 1 to 1,200.  It follows that the chances of obtaining a quick appointment with the family doctor might be very much dependent on where the individual lives.

But regardless of where you are located, the reality is that making a GP appointment is often both challenging and time consuming.  And even when the appointment is secured, it is rare for it to be at a time that fits conveniently with work and family commitments.

Of course it should be noted and accepted that the Government’s recently announced 10 year plan for the NHS intends to improve this issue.  Yet the reality is that this will take time, and the starting position is far from promising.  The Royal College of General Practitioners suggested in 2017 that the number of instances when patients would have wait a week or more to see a doctor will stand at more than 100 million by 2021/22.

And in 2017, The Kings Fund concluded;

“the care once people are in the practice does not seem to be an issue; it is getting in that is increasingly a problem.”

Why does this matter to employers?

Access to the family doctor is of course a problem for the individual.  Yet few employers give much thought as to how this also impacts their workplace and productivity too.

An employee who has to wait to see a doctor might be unable to work (or work effectively) until the appointment has happened and treatment is prescribed.  And of course the delay in the employee accessing GP advice might mean that the illness or condition worsens, resulting in a much longer absence period than would otherwise have been the case.

Another factor that employers should consider is the growing number of older workers in the UK (see my article last month).  Older workers are less prone to short periods of absence, but when they are off ill it tends to be for a much longer time.  So ensuring that this grouping has rapid access to a GP is clearly increasingly important to both worker and employer.

And don’t forget those employees who are based in remote areas and/or overseas.  These workers might struggle to find – let alone register with – a local doctor’s practice at short notice.  So securing any appointment is potentially a much bigger challenge for these individuals.

How can employers help?

So a solution is needed which allows employees to have quick and convenient access to a GP, and at an acceptable cost to the employer.  Happily such offerings already exist.

Employers can now help their workers by offering “remote” General Practitioner services via computers, smartphones, or even the good old fashioned telephone.  The remote GP can share the medical records with the family doctor, and can even arrange for prescriptions to be prepared at a local chemist for collection or delivery.  And importantly this service is available to both UK and overseas workers.

Such an offering is likely to be welcomed by employees, and should be immensely beneficial to the employer also.  But what about the additional cost in these worryingly uncertain times for UK business?

The good news is that employee accesses to such services are often already included as part of the core offering of some medical insurance and health cashplan policies.  So for many employers it will just be a case of highlighting this element of the policy, and encouraging use as an alternative to visiting the family doctor.  Alternatively, a remote GP service can be provided at a very nominal cost.  Prices start from just £1 per employee, per month.

The bottom line is that access to a General Practitioner is something that virtually every worker and their family needs.  It follows that it is in the interests of both employee and employer that such a service can be accessed with the minimum effort, quickly, and at a convenient time.

Employers now have an opportunity to make the wait for the waiting room a thing of the past.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy for Howden Employee Benefits