More patients die as lone GPs cover thousands in opt out services

Some parts of Britain are relying on just one out-of-hours GP at night to serve more than 240,000 residents.

An investigation by The Sunday Times into the inadequacy of round-the-clock cover has established two further deaths, including that of a three-year-old boy, after failures in the system.

Brighton, Bolton and Wigan are among the areas where a lone doctor is responsible for dealing with late-night emergencies. The news follows revelations last weekend that just two GPs provide cover for Suffolk and its 600,000-strong population on some nights.

Mark Simmonds, the Tory health spokesman, said repeated warnings about out-of-hours cover had gone unheeded by ministers: “It’s disgraceful that the government hasn’t taken action over this before.”

Brighton and Hove primary care trust (PCT) has one GP to cover an area with 248,000 residents on most nights. It claimed the doctor can receive as few as 10 calls each evening. However, in one case involving the trust, a three-year-old boy from Hove died from blood poisoning after the failure of the out-of-hours service.

The frantic parents of Joseph Seevaraj phoned the duty doctor at 11pm on a Sunday and asked whether they should take their son to hospital because he was vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea.

Joseph was already taking antibiotics for tonsillitis and the doctor advised his parents, Jean and Nicola, to wait for those to take effect. They watched over the toddler closely, but he died a few hours later.

A consultant in paediatric intensive care later said she believed the child would have survived if his parents had received proper advice from the out-of-hours service.

“He needed basic medical attention,” said Veronica Hamilton-Deeley, the coroner, at the inquest. “The failure to provide it was gross failure.”

South East Health, which provides round-the-clock services for Brighton and Hove PCT, said it had learnt from the incident in January 2008.

This weekend it emerged that only one GP serves 310,000 residents in the Wigan area on most nights, while 270,000 residents in the Bolton area also have to routinely rely on a single out-of-hours doctor.

In North Somerset there is just one GP for 200,000 residents on a week night. Cambridgeshire has three GPs at night, Norfolk has four and Cumbria has six.

Such skeleton cover was introduced when labour negotiated new contracts with GPs in 2004, boosting their average salary to more than £100,000 and allowing them to opt out of providing round-the-clock care.

While some PCTs say that just one or two GPs can adequately cover a population of more than 250,000, others have more doctors available for home visits.

Under South Birmingham PCT there are 11 doctors on overnight duty, each covering an average population of about 35,000.

Hampshire has 13 GPs on duty at night and Devon has eight, working at medical centres across the county.

Patients are often unaware if their local service is in crisis because most trusts do not publish performance reports. NHS Bristol said last week that a report on the quality of its out-of-hours GPs’ service was “confidential” and “commercially sensitive”.

Most round-the-clock services struggle to fill shifts with local GPs. Instead they use doctors from other parts of the country or foreign GPs who fly in for their shifts. A parliamentary debate was told last week of a case in Cornwall in which a patient had been confronted with a foreign doctor who used “an electronic word converter” to communicate. Other patients have complained of waiting eight hours for a doctor to arrive.

There have also been complaints that out-of-hours GPs do not have access to patient notes and sometimes fail to diagnose serious conditions. In one case, a doctor working as a duty GP in West Yorkshire was suspended from the General Medical Council register after he failed to examine an elderly patient properly. She died the next day.

Dr Krzysztof Robak, 62, commuted more than 175 miles from Surrey, where he worked for a diet clinic, to his Yorkshire employer, Local Care Direct. When he visited the 86-year-old patient, he failed to check her blood pressure or take her temperature and did not consider her seriously ill.

Local Care Direct, a non profit organisation which provides out-of-hours care services for 2.5m people in Yorkshire, said it had vetted Robak rigorously before employing him.

It said it did not consider that he had contributed to the patient’s death in July 2007, but it had raised concerns about his conduct.


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