Beckton based doctor hails digital move as possible cure for wider GP recruitment and retention issues

Staff at Tollgate Medical Centre in Beckton. Picture: Syed Ahmed

Staff at Tollgate Medical Centre in Beckton. Picture: Syed Ahmed - Credit: Archant

A GP has hailed a “revolutionary” way of working which has seen surgery waiting times drop and staff morale soar.

Before offering its 18,000 patients online access to staff, it was not uncommon for doctors at Tollgate Medical Centre in Beckton to work 15 hour days.

Routine appointment waiting times were up to four weeks at Newham’s second largest practice where 16 GPs, three nurses, two healthcare assistants and a phlebotomist would do their best to cope against a backdrop of budget cuts and targets.

Managing partner Dr Laura Scott said: “It was having too much impact. It’s not healthy or sustainable. Something had to change.”

Tollgate’s team hatched a plan to introduce online triage, giving patients access to clinicians face to face, by telephone, by text, or by video links.

On the first steps, Dr Scott said: “There was quite a lot of trepidation. The most important thing was whether this would have a negative impact on patient care.

“We needed to make sure vulnerable groups were looked after and not marginalised.”

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That includes people who may struggle with English and those without internet access.

After researching the options, carrying out training and getting feedback from those affected, the centre now offers all its patients the internet option which can mean they don’t have to visit the surgery if they don’t need to.

The results, according to Dr Scott, have been dramatic.

“It gives us more time with patients who need to be seen face to face. Waiting times have dropped dramatically.

“There are big recruitment and retention problems in primary care, but this, we hope, will turn this on its head,” she said.

It is also helping in the Covid-19 pandemic with GPs able to work from home. Routine appointment times have been slashed to within a few days.

It works with patients completing an online form, which asks them various things including about their symptoms, before they are directed to visit or offered an alternative. Patients are usually contacted within hours of submitting a form or calling the practice. Tollgate Medical Centre were the best performing practice for their online system in the country in the first week of implementing the system.

“It’s about giving patients different options. It’s been revolutionary,” Dr Scott said.

On how secure patient data is, Dr Scott – who has been at the surgery 15 years – explained the EMIS software used has been cleared for use by the NHS and Newham clinical commissioning group.

And with more flexibility, centre staff can now focus on other tasks within the practice.

“We now have more time to develop our services, which leads to improvements in patient care,” Dr Scott said.