In her latest column, Jewish News’ resident family GP, Dr Ellie Cannon, discusses how you should approach flu season if you’re a parent…
It’s that time of year again when parents prepare themselves for the onslaught of coughs and colds, missed school days and endless snot. And here’s a plea from GPs across the country: don’t bring your children to the surgery! Yes, I want to see patients, but most of the minor illnesses children get over the winter don’t need my attention. They’re insignificant viruses and you just need to self-care.
So why is it so important to avoid the GP surgery? Well, it really boils down to supply and demand for appointments. Estimates show as many as 50 million appointments in GP surgeries in England could be avoided if people knew how to access minor ailment services elsewhere, or were more confident with self-care.
The issue of access and availability of GPs is as old as the NHS itself but, in my experience from my own practice, this has certainly worsened in the past 10 years. Demand far outweighs supply, and having enough appointments for everyone is a daily battle in the clinic. If our clinics are full of children with minor coughs and colds, we don’t have time for the children who really do need to see us.
We are under duress from a range of targets for GP surgeries forcing us to have appointments available on the day, some available in two days and some available far in advance.
This is all very well in theory, but in reality, this is a nightmare for patients. My receptionists are often in a situation where they have appointments slots unfilled for the next day but aren’t able to offer them to a mum who has trudged down to the surgery, because they have to guard “book on the day” appointments.
There is always a mad scramble to get through on the telephones at 8am, and appointments are given out to those fastest on redial, rather than those who need them most. So it’s a problem if the appointments are being used for illnesses that don’t need GP intervention.
Patients and parents need to improve their ability to self-care: I read a report that more than five million people go the GP surgery with a blocked nose (I would have guessed more), most of whom should have been treating themselves at home with the help of the pharmacist or a remedy from grandma: there is nothing on prescription you will be offered that will be any better.
Week after week, I speak to patients who have had a sore throat for one or two days and have not tried any medication from the chemist, yet they are already phoning me for help.
We are certainly under-utilising the expertise of pharmacists to treat “minor ailments” but we are also, as a nation, under-confident in treating ourselves. Many people don’t realise a cold actually lasts 10 to 14 days and taking an antibiotic won’t have any effect.
We are not empowered when it comes to health issues and this has lead to an over- reliance on professionals to deal with problems our grandmas would have dealt with themselves.
There is much less health knowledge and advice passed on in families and communities than there used to be and from my experience people are looking for the immediate cure: I don’t think people have time to wait to get better. This is a function of our busy lives, the hectic schedules of our children and pressure from schools and employers not to be absent.
There is no exhaustive list of what parents can treat at home but, put simply, they are the short-lived, common minor ailments such as runny noses, sore throats, mild coughs, nits, dandruff, threadworms and conjunctivitis. It is important to emphasise we suggest self-care for minor problems if they have been present for a few days – obviously, if the problem is lasting more than two weeks it is important to seek help. Coughs and colds in the winter don’t take a few days to go – they can often last up to 14 days, particularly a cough.
If your child is well in all other ways, this really shouldn’t be anything to worry about.