1. Turn up at the surgery
More than one in four patients report difficulties getting through to their GP's practice on the phone, according to National Audit Office research It may not always be possible – or advisable – but if you can get to the surgery and state your case to the receptionist in person, you'll already be one step ahead of everyone else who's being held in an interminable telephone queuing system.
Plus, if you can get there as soon as the surgery opens, all the better. Some practices already operate a walk-in appointment service. Others will simply allow you to wait until a doctor becomes free.
What's keeping you from your GP?
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2. Stay calm – or delegate
Opted to stay home and call the surgery instead? If you're feeling unwell and have just spent 20 minutes listening to tinny hold music, you're likely to feel tongue-tied, furious or exhausted – possibly all three – by the time your call finally gets answered. But do resist the temptation to take things out on the receptionist. Be polite but firm. Explain why you need an urgent appointment – it can help to write down the main points beforehand – and answer any questions politely.
Alternatively, if you feel too unwell or anxious to make the call, ask a family member or friend to call on your behalf. If they voice their concerns about your health, it may help you get fast-tracked to see a doctor.
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3. Escalate your concerns
No matter how much she understands the urgency of your situation, the receptionist may not be in a position to make exceptions if today's appointment book is already full. If that's the case, ask to speak to the practice manager, who will have more authority. Again, explain the situation calmly and courteously.
Still no luck? Ask if you can leave a message for your doctor to call you as soon as possible. If your GP knows you well or is treating you for an on-going condition, they may be able to diagnose and prescribe over the phone. Some practices now offer telephone consultations as an alternative to face-to-face appointments. Or if your phone conversation raises concerns, they'll be more inclined to squeeze you in at the surgery later in the day.
4. Be flexible
Determined to see your preferred GP? Yes, continuity of care is important – but if it's a genuine emergency and your regular doctor is unavailable, it's far better to see another GP today, rather than wait a few more days. Doctors tend to take it in turns to handle the urgent same-day appointments anyway.
Be flexible about appointment times, too. After all, you're unlikely to convince the receptionist of your need for an urgent consultation if you insist you can't make it between 10am and 11am as that's when you're at your Zumba class. And come prepared to wait: if you're being slotted in at the end of surgery, it's highly likely you'll be sitting around for a while: morning sessions, in particular, inevitably overrun.
5. Do your homework
Every GP practice is different. Make the effort to find out how yours works now, and you'll be better placed to secure an on-the-day appointment in future.
A few pointers?
- Sign up to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions online.
- Ask the receptionist when the quietest times are, and what time booking for urgent appointments starts.
- It's often worth calling in the late morning, as that's when the staff are likely to know about cancellations.
- Mondays and Fridays are generally the busiest days – so it's worth bearing in mind that you'll probably have more luck getting to see a doctor at short notice midweek.
Finally, be polite and considerate whenever you're in contact with the surgery staff – and you're more likely to be taken seriously and seen quickly when you're in real need.
Order repeat prescriptions in plenty of time. Don't exaggerate your symptoms in a bid to jump the queue. And, if you no longer need to see a doctor, make sure you cancel as soon as possible: more than 300,000 people fail to show up for their appointments each week in England alone, costing the NHS £300m each year, says research by GPonline.
Unlimited access to a qualified GP with Saga Health Insurance - you'll have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to a GP consultation service. Find out more about our GP phone service.