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Navigating the NHS

How to get the best from your GP

The image of a kindly looking doctor carrying a black bag and making house calls to patients known for years may be a thing of the past but your GP is still often the first point of contact for you and your family's health.

Unlike specialist doctors in hospitals, GPs - general practitioners - have a broad range of knowledge. Throughout their careers GPs can expect to encounter a far greater range of conditions than any other healthcare professional. They are experts in family medicine, preventative care and health education. They treat people with multiple and long-term conditions, offer advice on diet and quitting smoking, run clinics, provide vaccinations and carry out simple surgical procedures.

Visits to the GP are free.

GPs usually work with a team that includes practice nurses, health visitors and midwives, as well as a range of other health professionals such as physiotherapists and district nurses. GPs are able to refer you to a hospital for tests, treatment or to see a consultant with specialist knowledge.

If you are a carer your GP can also advise you on sorting out benefits and getting respite care from the local authority.

All this means a good relationship with your GP is essential and it's why you should take your time when choosing a GP practice.

Choosing a GP

Researching your options can help you find the right GP.  A good place to start is by asking friends and family for their recommendations.

Once you've identified a possible GP practice you need to check you live within its catchment area.

For many, opening times are more important than location. Whether the GP practice is open before or after normal working hours or at weekends are important questions for those who work full-time.

Consider how easy it is to get to the practice. Is it well served by public transport? Does it offer parking?

It may be that your cultural background and age influence your preference. For example, many women prefer to see female doctors.

No matter how convenient a GP practice may seem, always check its performance before registering with it. A practice that performs poorly, for example, one that seldom answers the phone or fails to listen to patients concerns, is less likely to provide you with a good service. You can find out more about individual GP surgeries on the NHS websites.

Out of hours care

If you have an urgent medical problem outside of normal clinic hours you can still phone your GP practice, but you'll usually be directed to an out-of-hours service.

GPs can choose whether to provide 24-hour care for their patients themselves or to make other arrangements for out-of-hours services.

Out-of-hours cover may include GPs working in A&E departments or minor injuries units (MIUs). Different areas may well have slightly different services.  

If you can't wait until your GP practice is open you can also consider using an NHS walk-in centre if there is one in your area. A relatively new innovation these allow any member of the public (you don't have to be registered) to see a doctor or nurse at a time that suits you between 8am and 8pm, 365 days a year. Each centre offers appointments and walk-in services.

These centres aren't just for use in a crisis, they also offer core GP services, such as family health advice, vaccinations, examinations and prescriptions. However, don't let the idea of a 'walk-in' centre fool you into thinking you can just walk in and be seen immediately, if you're arriving to an un-booked clinic you will probably join a queue and the person with the greatest medical need will be seen first.

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