THE new booking system for patients at Eskbridge Medical Practice in Musselburgh has come under fire.

Community councillor Betty Ramsden said the morning open surgery and usual appointment system had been scrapped.

She told the monthly meeting of Musselburgh and Inveresk Community Council last Tuesday that doctors now phoned back patients who contacted the surgery.

Mrs Ramsden said: “I phoned the surgery at 8am and couldn’t get through.

“After half an hour I got through and asked for an appointment that day.

“I was told you cannot now make an appointment with the doctor. I was told to leave my name and the doctor will phone you. He phoned me back later on and I got an appointment that day.”

Mrs Ramsden felt that doctors had more to do with their time than phone back patients, who would have to stay in to wait on the call.

“The doctor was good enough, I’m not decrying the doctor – the system is dreadful,” she said.

“Some people must have it very difficult if they are ill. I just think they are just not even phoning the doctor because they can’t get through.”

Cathy McArthur, community councillor, suggested a community-based group could be set up to discuss local views with health centre representatives.

David Small, director of East Lothian Health and Social Care Partnership, is expected to address the community council at its meeting on January 26.

The partnership took Eskbridge Medical Practice into direct management on December 1.

The practice was previously independently managed by its GP partners. It currently has about 8,800 patients on its books and supports five care homes in the Musselburgh area. The move was prompted by pressures on the practice arising from national difficulties in recruiting GPs.

Mr Small told the Courier: “Over the summer, one of the partners decided he was going to retire and another partner decided to resign, so immediately you were two doctors down, and that creates a problem for the practice. The practice wasn’t able to recruit doctors to replace them, so they came to the health and social care partnership to see if we could support them.”

He explained that one of the changes for the practice was the introduction of ‘Phone First’, a telephone-based system for patients contacting the practice in place of the more traditional appointment system.

“I think they had an on the day walk-in as well, which often resulted in queues on a Monday morning out into the Mall at the primary care centre,” Mr Small said. “From our point of view, there are better ways of organising access to general practice.”

Mr Small added: “The idea of Phone First is that patients don’t have to worry about whether they will get to see a doctor or not.

“They don’t have to worry about trying to get their phone call in between 8am and 8.30am on a Monday morning.

“If you have a traditional appointment-based system and people coming in to see the doctor, everybody tries to phone first thing on a Monday or Tuesday and the phones don’t get answered because there are too many people queuing.

“Sometimes it’s not a great experience for the patients and it’s frustrating for the staff because they know there are people trying to get through. The early appointments are also coming in.

“With Phone First, you don’t have to phone at 8 or 8.30am because you know your call will be answered whenever you phone. You know a doctor will call you back and a time will be set.

“If an appointment is necessary, an appointment is given, nobody is denied an appointment. It is designed to take away the frustration of waiting. If people have a hearing impairment, for example, you have to give them the opportunity to come to the practice. There will be categories, like people who are homeless, who can’t arrange a phone back. So it’s got to be flexible.

“We tried it in The Harbours Medical Practice in Cockenzie and the satisfaction was high.

“Sometimes for the doctors it can be hard work because you are on the phone for a whole session, like four hours, and you can’t see the person face to face.

“Some doctors are completely happy with that but some of them prefer the traditional face to face. You have to make sure it works for the staff as well.”

Mr Small said that the Phone First system would be kept under review and a customer satisfaction survey would be carried out with patients in a couple of months.