Patients urged to show restraint in GP calls

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Public Policy Editor

A pounds 2.75m campaign to persuade patients to use their family doctor sensibly was launched yesterday, amid charges from the Patients' Association that it may deter some who genuinely need a GP visit from asking for one.

The campaign - pounds 750,000 of advertising and pounds 2m of local initiatives - equivalent to several hundred hip replacements - was launched by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health. "The NHS is there to meet clinical need, and every patient has the right to that. But with that right comes a responsibility to use the health service sensibly and intelligently," he said.

The campaign follows a doubling in the past three years of out-of-hours calls to GPs, who have cited patients calling at night or weekend when they have run out of tampons, lost the key to the medicine cabinet or sought a visit, in the case of one patient, "to see if she was well enough to attend a cocktail party".

Mr Dorrell, however, said the campaign was aimed less at such extremes than at persuading patients to think twice before calling the doctor for colds, influenza or headaches when a visit to the chemist or optician would make more sense. Patients had to ask themselves before calling: "Is that a responsible way to use the health service?

"The message is simple," he added: "Think twice. If you still think that your GP is the right person, then the GP will be there for you."

The advertisements picture elderly and seriously-ill patients, stating they "need a doctor as soon as possible". They ask: "Could you be getting in the way?"

But John Spiers, chairman of the Patients' Association, said it feared the advertisements might, for example, deter the elderly or parents, with genuine worries about their children, from calling.

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association's GP's committee, said the rapid rise in non-urgent night calls was creating "tired doctors who do not make good doctors".