A FAMILY doctor struggling to cope with 5,000 patients has told how she is forced to screen patients by email.
Dr Sue Arnott was left to run her practice on her own when her two partners retired and she couldn’t recruit anyone to fill the post.
While most doctors have to deal with around 1,600 patients, Dr Arnott’s practice, in Shotts, North Lanarkshire, has 5,000 people on its books.
In a desperate attempt to cope, she asks patients to contact her by email and explain their issue.
More than half now log on to contact her.
Dr Arnott then sorts those emails into different groups – with some patients offered an appointment with her, some with a practice nurse, and some with a mental health nurse.
Others may be given advice by email or a repeat prescription.
The 48-year-old mother of three said she advertised to find replacement GPs, but said: “After eight months of not getting any suitable applicants, I realised that we had to take on board online consultations.
“The alternative was to close the practice.”
Dr Arnott’s problem in finding new colleagues is far from unique, with one in four Scots GP practices struggling to recruit.
Dr Andrew Buist, chairman of the Scottish GP Committee of the British Medical Association, praised Dr Arnott for coping with so many patients.
He added: “However, online GPs could be distancing their patients and I think a 10%-to-15% online consultation rate would be ideal.
“Online consultations suit some patients who have busy working lives and can’t spare the time to attend surgeries.”
Many family doctors are now approaching retirement while younger ones have emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Dr Arnott’s online service has been running for more than a year at the Burnbrae Medical Practice.
She said 60%-70% of her patients are now logging on to contact her.
“They are all ages, and the eldest is 81,” Dr Arnott said.
“This is how your family doctor could evolve.
“If someone needs an appointment that day, they can get it.
“We don’t offer ones three weeks from now and patients can still phone my practice for appointments.
“We are not doing away with phone calls.”
Dr Arnott does admit some patients have been sent to the wrong person in the practice, but they will immediately have a new appointment arranged.
“That is picked up early and addressed,” she added. “I will see the patient the same day.
Despite not seeing every patient who comes through the door, Dr Arnott still works a 55-hour week and suffers herself from rheumatoid arthritis.
Of her husband, a retired police officer, she says: “I try not to take work home but my husband, Iain, says I am addicted to my job.”
Dr Arnott has joined the online GP consultation service, askmyGP, which provides the online technology.
It has been adopted by four GP practices in Scotland, in Motherwell and Edinburgh, and another 20 across the UK.
It costs £1 a year for each patient registered at the practice.
Dr Buist, 54, a GP in Blairgowrie, added: “Around 25 years ago there was 63 applicants for my job here.
“Now you would be lucky to get 10 and a few of them won’t be suitable.
“It is not an attractive career choice for young doctors.
“The hours are long and workload intense.”
NHS Scotland offers a £20,000 golden handshake to GPs taking jobs in remote communities. They have to stay for two years to keep the cash.
Dr Arnott’s loyalty to her community has brought her a prize for excellence from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in recognition of her work in diabetes.
“My dad was a hospital biochemist and warned me not to do medicine,” she said.
“He said it would be incredibly hard work and he wasn’t wrong.
“However, I love my job and feel privileged to make a difference to patients’ lives.
“Some of them are a real joy and I can’t see me doing any else.”
The Scottish Government said it was developing a national and international marketing campaign for GP recruitment and has recently launched a GP Jobs website.
A spokesperson added: “This action sits alongside a new GP contract to stabilise income, reduce workload, and improve patient care – and we aim to increase the number of GPs by at least 800 over ten years to ensure a sustainable service that meets increasing demand.”