Tag Archives: Emergency Department

Access to General Practice and Emergency Department attendance in UK. A link to poverty?

16 Jun

The paper from Imperial College evaluating Emergency Department use with reference to access to a General Practitioner during the year 1 April 2011- 31 March 2012 here in England caused a small storm when it was published last week (June 13, 2013). At face value, the results play into the Government’s narrative that GPs are lazy, do not see enough patients, and Emergency Departments are overwhelmed by honest citizens who were not able to see there GP at the time of their choosing (Cowling et al, 2013). The perception was propagated elsewhere, including the fledgling The Conversation UK .

Here are some reasons why the conclusions are flawed in my opinion.

  1. The General Practice Access Questionnaire surveying the percentage of people who stated that there was poor 48 hour access to see their general practitioner is widely discredited by general practices as bearing no relationship to the reality of access to their practices
    1. Too few non-British respondents compared with true practice profiles (84.9% white) and relatively too many men (49.8%) compared to usual pattern of GP utilisation
    2. Many respondents actually have no idea how their own practice operates, this particularly true of male patients who use GP infrequently.
    3. No stratification for illness episodes people felt required 48 hour (or less) access to GP
    4. No effort to look at patient outcomes from failure to see GP within 48 hours.
    5. < 4% practice population completed the forms which is arguably too low to be meaningful (2 million respondents of population of 56 million)
  2. Hospital Episode Statistics ED minimum dataset too simplistic
    1. No detailed disease code for reason for attendance
    2. No outcome data as a result of (a)
  3. Indicator variables for the Strategic Health Authority in which a general practice is located were included to account for unobserved variation in regional health system characteristics and policy. This is too crude to assess pockets of deprivation which every practice has, and some more than others.

Cowling et al observed that

The median percentage of a practice’s registered population that had tried to see a GP within two weekdays in the past six months was 59.3% (IQR: 54.9–63.6%). This demand was not always met: the median percentage that was subsequently able to do so was 82.0% (IQR: 74.0–89.3%).

You must keep in mind that this number refers to the GPAQ results, not actual numbers. The GPs I know do not recognise the result as properly describing the access to their practices.

In their discussion

In 2011-12, 9% of respondents to the GP Patient Survey who were unable to obtain a convenient appointment on their last attempt report subsequently going to an ED or walk-in centre, which accords with the results of our analysis.

Which simply validates their dataset rather than really telling us any more about the reasons for the behaviour.

And Cowling et al are dismissive of data which does not support their thesis suggesting to me that their minds were made up before this statistical paper was completed and the data have been made to fit the narrative.

Previous research of 68 general practices in London, England did not identify a statistically significant association between patient-reported access to general practice services and the rate of self-referred discharged ED visits, possibly due to insufficient statistical power. This explanation may also apply to a similar analysis of 145 practices in Leicestershire, England, which included all types of ED visit in the outcome variable.

Referring to North America data on GP access is not helpful because there is not universal coverage for primary health care like here in UK. In fact, it can be argued that the data confirms poverty and low social class as determinants of unplanned hospital (e.g. Emergency Department) use.

Looking at some common conditions which may influence ED

the prevalence of obesity in the registered population had a statistically significant positive association with the rate of ED visits (RR = 1.006; P = 0.021), whereas the prevalence of asthma and hypertension did not

indicates to me that the population who filled in the GPAQ do not properly represent disease prevalence or people who attend the practice regularly do know how to access their GP promptly and do so successfully. This mocks the conclusions of the study.

The results of this study do not support the hypothesis that timely access to GP could reduce self-referrals to the Emergency Department. What the study tells us is that some white English people cannot be bothered to wait to see their GP for self-limiting conditions. There is some evidence supporting the view that self-referral to Emergency Department is associated with low social class, poor education, and poverty. This is inferred from the observation that obesity has a positive association with ED attendance; obesity is closely linked to unfavourable social factors http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2013/jan/23/fact-checking-obesity-poverty-link This is exacerbated in the current economic climate and further worsened by a Government pushing much and more onto General Practices since 2004 a lot of which is clinically useless. For example, Health Checks, GP access initiatives, ambulatory blood pressure recording to diagnose hypertension, routine reviews of people with long term conditions who are stable.

I believe part of the problem of perceived poor access to see a GP has been created by the UK Government fanning flames of expectation by the worried well. Practices must make more routine appointments available for people with long term conditions, must not turn away anyone who wishes to be seen in hours, and can no longer depend on expert community nursing to help out. Finally, the hardships many of my patients face in their living conditions because of unscrupulous landlords and local authorities turning blind eye to the tenants’ grievances is exacerbating the problem.

The paper by Cowling et al does support the Government’s assertion that General Practice and GPs are not working hard enough. It is clear to me that the research is flawed and the main conclusion is unfounded.

June 2013

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Nothing to see here – General Practice serves our children well

20 Feb


February 19, 2013 UK readers awoke to the headline that NHS is failing the children. Why?

  • Kids with meningococcal disease are turned away rather than sent to hospital to be cured;
  • Children with asthma are not given adequate treatment;
  • Too many children are admitted to paediatric wards with minor illnesses
  • Doctors prescribe too many drugs which have not been tested on children
  • General practitioners do not have proper postgraduate training in child health

At face value such accusations are depressing. The accusations sully the credibility of GPs who are constantly berated for some failing or other every week in the Britain.

Here I hope to show that the accusations are baseless. General practitioners are fantastic physicians who can manage any patient in first contact doctor setting from cradle to grave.

Meningococcal disease in children

This myth perpetuated in the article that children are turned away is based on an article published in 2006 [http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(06)67932-4/abstract, accessed Feb 20, 2013]


Much has changed since that article was published. In any event the study makes no mention of the fate of the fatalities many of whom, one may argue, would have died anyway. Be that as it may, meningococcal disease is less common now Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) immunisation is universally available in UK.


Screen clipping taken: 20/02/2013 22:22

Nearly 70% reduction in cases since 2006 is attributable to the immunisation program. Given that millions of GP visits are children, the fact is the chance of any one GP diagnosing a case of meningococcal disease is vanishingly small today. Thus the hazard referred to is scaremongering. The British public deserve better information to make decisions about their kids who develop fevers and blanching rashes. Sadly a reputable charity, The Meningococcal Foundation perpetuates the hazard speculating there are nearly 3,500 cases of meningococcal disease annually in Britain. The figure for 2012 is 443 recorded cases, and many are adults.

Childhood Asthma

Asthma in children is a common condition. General practitioners diagnose the condition regularly. It is a core competency of MRCGP curriculum to diagnose, treat, and manage asthma.

What we cannot do is make parents give the treatment as often as may be needed. We cannot make children and teens take their inhalers regularly. Important risk factor for poor asthma control in youngsters include: parents/carers who smoke, overcrowding, damp, dusty environment. Prematurity is an independent risk factor for bronchial hyperreactivity/asthma. This is important with the upsurge in assisted conception and attendant increase in multiple births which often end in premature delivery of the babies.

Asthma UK does a good job helping people with asthma understand their condition and manage it properly, including an excellent section on inhaler usage.


Screen clipping taken: 20/02/2013 22:36

It is not doctors’ fault that many children have poorly controlled asthma and asthma-like conditions. People with asthma must take more responsibility for the correct management of this long term condition. Wringing of hands that doctors are not treating people with asthma properly perpetuates a State-controlled solution for every ill affecting individuals. This requires better reading comprehension, better education of children to take responsibility for their actions/conditions, and better access to online resources for everyone to improve information flow.

The story about asthma can apply to every long-term condition. There is not space here to enumerate many of the places to look for advice, though NHS Choices and BBC Health deserve wider readership at least in UK.

Minor illness admissions of children

It is a truism that all serious illness begins as minor illness. The trick is to spot which cases may progress. Doctors receive many years of training to learn how to spot the the worrying case. It is an art not a science in this. Suffice to say, like many of my colleagues, I will refer a child to hospital when I fear that worry will stop me sleeping at night about a particular case. This is, I know, not scientific, but when the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the child in front of me at that moment will be referred to see a colleague in paediatrics.

If one admits too few patients to hospital, too many unwell children will be taken to Emergency Department out of hours. If one admits too many children, there will be no space for the truly ill child referred by a colleague. All GPs know this. Yes some of us are high referrers while others are not. No-one has discovered what is the ideal referral rate. This is well known to the profession and health economists.

Therefore the accusation in the article is baseless.

Prescribing untested drugs to children

This is a specious argument. With the widespread availability of the British National Formulary for Children, there is a sound basis for prescribing for children in UK (and elsewhere). Yet another baseless accusation threatening to undermine the professionalism of the medical profession in its management of children.

Too few GPs have postgraduate child health training

This is baseless accusation too. General practice curriculum described by RCGP includes core competency in child health. Further, nearly 80% GPs have some postgraduate training in paediatrics before they complete general practice training (at least in UK) [personal communication from Doctors.net website].

Conclusion

The British public has a fantastic primary healthcare service which serves our children well. With a little bit of research it is obvious the article which prompted me to write this is full of inaccuracies and unfounded accusations.

Illusions of Autonomy

Where medical ethics and human behaviour meet

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The Commonplace Book

Jim McManus blogs on public health, ethics, books, theology and more