Alternatives to your GP

Lesley Dobson / 09 November 2016

You don’t always need to see your GP, so who else is on your health team?



When it comes to looking for professional help with our health, we tend to focus on our GPs. With some health problems your GP will be the best possible health professional to see. But with other health issues there may be other health professionals, experts in their fields, who should be on your health team too.

Pharmacists, Practice Nurses, Opticians, /Optometrists, Physiotherapists, and other qualified health experts can provide specialised health care and advice in their chosen fields.  And you may find you don’t have to wait so long for an appointment.

GPs are under more pressure than ever before – GP practices in England now provide health care for an extra 1.1 million people than two years ago – so finding alternative health experts may mean shorter waiting times for appointments.

Five ways to get a GP appointment today

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Practice nurses

Practice nurses are vital to the smooth running of GPs clinics. They have very wide-ranging roles, from taking blood samples, to giving advice on how to stop smoking and how to lose weight.

They may also run clinics for a range of common health problems, including asthma and diabetes. If you need a new dressing on a cut or wound, or need to have your ears syringed, you’ll probably see a Practice Nurse.

If you’re not sure whether to make an appointment to see your GP or the Practice Nurse, check with the surgery’s receptionists. In some cases you may need to see the GP first, and then see the Practice Nurse for follow-up appointments afterwards. Or your GP may refer you to a clinic run by one of the Practice Nurses.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners are specialist nurses, who have been through extra training so that they can make diagnoses and prescribe treatment, including prescriptions, if you need them.

These nurses can deal with a wide range of health problems, and can also manage long-term health problems, including asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and epilepsy.

They work closely with the GPs in their practice, and if they feel it’s necessary, will refer patients on to their GP. Because of their extra training they can also refer their patients on to hospital doctors and can also admit them to hospital if they need further treatment.

GP online services

Many GP surgeries now offer online services. This means that as long as you have access to the internet through a mobile phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer, you can contact your surgery without leaving home, and without having to wait for your phone call to be answered.

To start with, explain to the surgery receptionists that you would like to sign up for online contact. They will probably give you a form to fill in, and ask for some confirmation of your name and address. Once your details have been processed, they’ll send you details of how to access the online services (they will probably give you a username and password along with a link to the website.

Once you’re online you’ll be able to access the services the surgery offers – ordering prescriptions online, for instance, and booking appointments with your GP.

Pharmacists

Community pharmacists – those who work with members of the public, often through high street pharmacies – are a really useful source of help and advice. They can be a good first port of call if you need advice about minor health matters and medicines.

Their roles include checking prescriptions, to make sure that you’ve been prescribed the right drug and the right amount. When they dispense these drugs to you, they can give you advice on how and when to take them, and the side effects they may cause.

Pharmacists are experts on prescription and non-prescription medicines and can advise you on what to take for every-day problems like colds, coughs, aches and pains.

A pharmacist’s role also covers giving you advice on staying healthy, and on any symptoms you may be worrying about. If these symptoms are minor, a pharmacist may advise you on how to treat them, and which over-the-counter products might help. They can also tell you what to look out for as a sign that the problem may be getting worse, so that you can arrange to see your GP.

Pharmacists also offer services that can save you waiting for an appointment with your GP. These include:

  • New Medicine Service, where they will talk to you about any new drug or treatment you’ve been prescribed for a long-standing health problem.
  • Medicines Use Review (the MUR service), where a pharmacist will talk to you about the medicines you’re taking, make sure that you are taking the right dose of each drug, at the right time, and find out whether they are causing you any problems. If you’re having difficulties with any of your medicines, the pharmacist may let your GP know about this.
  • Flu vaccination service. This is often given free if you are in a high-risk group (e.g. are over 65, have asthma or lung disease etc.) in pharmacies in England and Wales if you qualify for a free NHS jab. Check with your local pharmacies.
  • Stop smoking advice. Local pharmacies often offer free advice to help you stop smoking, so ask those near to you if they offer this service. While the advice and support should be free, you may be charged for Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) prescriptions. Check with the pharmacist. If you qualify for free prescriptions NRT products may be free as well.
  • NHS Health Check – some pharmacies offer this check, which covers testing your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

Your pharmacy may charge for some or all of these services, depending on your circumstances, so check with them before you book.

Help for when you're trying to quit smoking

Optometrists

If you’re having problems with your eyes – blurred vision or soreness for instance – a trip to your local optician’s to see your optometrist could provide a diagnosis and treatment.

Optometrists check your eyesight, and prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and fit these for you. They can also diagnose eyesight conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts, all of which can cause lasting damage to your eyesight.

By examining your eyes optometrists can also identify health problems that affect your whole body. These include diabetes and high blood pressure, (both of which need to be treated by your GP).

Optometrists don’t carry out any operations on eyes, but if they feel you may need eye surgery they can refer you to a specialist eye clinic, such as the eye department in your local hospital, or to your GP, who will then refer you to an eye clinic.

If you are over 60, or have inherited eye conditions in your family (such as glaucoma), you should qualify for free eye tests. Check with your optician. Remember to ask about the cost of eyesight tests before you book an appointment.

How optometrists look out for your health

Osteopaths

As we grow older, most of us develop stiffness and pain in various parts of the body, especially in the lower back, shoulders and neck. Painful joints can also make daily life uncomfortable. If very painful, this can make it difficult for us to do even simple activities, such as walking or gardening.

Osteopaths can help ease discomfort using touch, massage, stretching and physical manipulation to help ease muscle tension and to get joints moving comfortably. Research has found good evidence that osteopathy helps to treat ongoing lower back pain. They also work with people with a wide range of symptoms, such as headaches and neck pain, trapped nerves and a wide range of other problems.

At the moment it’s hard to find osteopathy available through the NHS, (although it’s worth asking at your GP’s surgery), so you are likely to have to pay for this treatment. Charges are generally around £35 to £50 for a session lasting from 30 to 40 minutes.

Learn more about osteopathy

Physiotherapists

If you’ve ever had back or neck pain or chronic pain (the type that carries on for months, affecting the way you live), you may have already been to a physiotherapist for treatment. Health problems such as recovering from a stroke or heart attack, for instance – obviously need treatment from a specialist senior doctor, but physiotherapists play an important part in your recovery too.

Their role is to help ease pain, restore movement to painful joints and help to keep you active. Physiotherapists can also help you become more mobile if you’ve had a heart attack or a stroke. A physiotherapist will give advice on how to protect your joints, and show you exercises that can help strengthen particular problem areas, as well as giving you advice on how to stay active.

Physiotherapy is free, through the NHS, so you may need to see your GP about being referred to a physiotherapist. This isn’t always necessary. In some parts of the UK you can make an appointment to see an NHS physiotherapist without having to go through a doctor. This tends to depend on why you need physiotherapy.

For fairly simple problems, such as minor injuries or aches and pains, you should be able to self-refer. If you have a more serious medical history check whether you need a referral from your GP. To find out whether you can self-refer in your local area check with your GP’s surgery, or from your Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) or trust.

Learn more about how a physiotherapist could help you

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.