How to preserve your GP for future use

By Emma Dunning GP

Nearly four out of five New Zealand GPs are feeling burnt out, the 2022 Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners workforce survey shows.

That means there is a good chance that your own GP is feeling exhausted, not able to be as compassionate as they used to be, and their brain is just not working as well as usual.

If you’ve tried to find a new GP lately, you’ll know they’re in short supply. So the best way to get the health care you need is to help the GP you’ve got to keep going.

Time

Your GP likely has 15-minute appointments. This includes the time taken to walk to their room, the consultation, ordering tests, writing prescriptions, writing your notes and arranging the bill.

This leaves 10-12 minutes to help you with your problem. Your GP wants, and is professionally required, to do a safe job. This is why they ask you to bring one problem to an appointment.

A review of your medication and prescription takes a whole consultation. Any kind of pain takes a whole consultation all by itself. Any mental health problem takes more than one consultation.

If you have more than one problem, or you think your problem will take more than 12 minutes, ask when you book if you can have a double appointment.

Your GP would love to be able to get to know you as a person first and earn your trust in your own time. Often our health system doesn’t allow for this.

If you are able to, it’s best to bring up the problem that’s on your mind right at the beginning of your consultation. As hard as it can be, if you leave things out your GP can’t get the full picture of what they need to do to help you.

If you’re worried that your symptoms might mean you have a particular illness, it’s best if you can say so. Writing down a list of your symptoms and questions beforehand will help you get the most out of your appointment time.

Technology

Trust your GP’s expertise and experience. You may have researched your symptoms, and you know your own body best. Your GP is able to add knowledge of our health system, perspective and experience.

They have a wide view of things that you may not have thought were important, the most likely cause of your symptoms, and whether these are likely to be serious. They have a plan for investigating and treating with available resources if needed.

Patient portals are a great way of managing your own healthcare. They have also added hugely to GP workloads.

A portal email to your GP is a kind of medical consultation, different to the back and forth we expect with other emails.

Look around the portal first – often the answer is already there. If your medical centre has open notes, you can see your past consultation notes, which may have the plan for your next steps.

Think about whether email is the right way to make contact. If your question is, “I have had a sore tummy for three weeks, should I make an appointment?”, the answer is always yes. Go ahead and make an appointment, an email will delay you getting sorted.

Think about whether your GP is the right person on the team to contact – if your question is about copies of notes or appointments, contact reception instead.

When you’ve decided that an email to your GP is the best way to get what you need, put all the information you think they’ll need into one message.

“I got the first letter from the hospital saying they got my eye clinic referral back in February, but I haven’t heard anything since, I haven’t changed my address,” means action can be taken straight away, but “I haven’t heard from the hospital” means your GP has to read through your notes and possibly email you back for more information.

If they say “please make an appointment” it means they know that the question needs a consultation to be answered properly.

Getting things done

Your GP is constantly prioritising competing needs.

GPs usually consult in 3½ to four-hour sessions, which are back-to-back 15-minute consu

A blood test result showing a person’s kidneys aren’t working means your GP needs to arrange for the person to go to hospital – this is clinical urgency.

An insurance medical report that needs to be completed before you start work – this is social urgency, and has lower priority.

Your GP is working through tasks in order of priority, as quickly and as safely as they possibly can.

They get negative feedback when things don’t go well. Positive feedback is less common.

If you have a good experience, write down specifically what you appreciated (separate to a request for something else) and leave it at reception for your GP. It may be the kindness that reminds them why they keep working.