The Prime Minister has announced the end of the Plan B Covid restrictions on the 27th January 2022. Mask wearing on public transport and in shops, and the presentation of vaccine certification or negative testing evidence for entry into venues will no longer be compulsory. Compulsory self isolation with covid postive tests will be allowed to lapse on March 24th. I think this leaves General Practice with a bit of a problem. At this stage, there is no additional measures for the NHS, although my guess is that it may still be advisory, but that has not been confirmed.
Many General Practices have adhered strictly to a mask policy, some even attempting to write it into practice policy to maintain their right to managing face to face consultations with their clinical staff.
THERE IS A TRAIN COMING DOWN THE TRACK! No one has told the patient what will happen. The public, who are desperate to get back some semblance of normality, will see this as that sign. Their expectation will be that booking an appointment to see a GP will miraculously be restored, all restrictions lifted and business will return to 'normal'.
This is a complex problem for general practice. Keeping the doors open, protecting precious GP and Nurse practitioner time without risking infection and dealing with sections of hostile patient population will drive their decisions about how they will respond. Public relations are at an all time low in some areas and patients are bewildered as to why it has become so difficult to see their GP when restrictions are being relaxed.
As a business strategist it is my job to help business predict the future and put plans in place to minimise the impact or emerging issues. It is not difficult to identify the unknowns and put a plan in place for dealing with them. The biggest challenge is getting leaders to acknowledge the consequences of doing nothing. The problem escalates and instead of dealing with a problem, suddenly they are thrust into a crisis and a firefighting response that leads to more poor decision making.
My advice to GPs and Practice/business managers struggling with this at the moment is simple.
Get ahead of the curve: be clear about how you will handle this and why. Manage your message by informing your patients of what you will do to solve their problems whilst keeping the doors open.
Let your patients see you: use social media, your Patient Participation Group and your website to inform and reassure patients that you are acting in a responsible caring way.
Take Control of your Public Relations: Start balancing the information that patients are getting about the pressures in General Practice. You have been (and will continue to be) pilloried by the media for 'barring access' to surgeries, unhelpful receptionists and poor organisation. I have seen little attempt generally at balancing those inaccurate messages with the primary care side of things. Have a planned strategy for responding and restoring trust in the GP/patient relationship.
Train your staff in conflict resolution: these challenges require high level communication skills to handle and diffuse conflict whilst retaining control of the conversation. It is an approach that will calm the most difficult conversations down and prevent your complaints from going through the roof.
Take a pragmatic approach to developing your PPG: you are missing a trick if you are not using this group to support your public relations and do some of the heavy lifting. Establishing a productive relationship with this group can have a major impact on creating a positive patient perception of service during these challenging times. Don't leave it, the work you put in today will start to pay dividends tomorrow.
Wendy Garcarz has more than 30 years experience in Primary Care and offers a range of solutions to GP federations/ Group practices, PCNs and CCGs to improve public relations, get the most from patient engagement. For a no obligation chat about anything related to this article please call 07973 780054 or 01283 575136.