Quarter of patients wait four days to see a doctor

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ONE IN four people needing to see a GP has to wait at least four days for an appointment, according to a survey.

One in five said the wait was too long and, of those referred to a hospital specialist, one in three believed the condition worsened while they waited. One in seven said they had to wait in pain.

The findings from the first national government survey of patients' views of the National Health Service found most people were satisfied with the care they received but wanted it sooner.

More than 80 per cent had seen their GP in the past year and nine out of ten considered he or she had made the right diagnosis most of the time. However, inconvenient surgery hours put off many patients, including one in four women under 45.

Nearly 40 per cent of adults complained of difficulty getting through to the surgery on the phone and one in five encountered difficult receptionists once they had made contact. When they did manage to see the GP, 40 per cent considered they were not always told enough about their condition. Women were twice as likely as men to want to be seen by a doctor of their own sex.

The Association of Community Health Councils said long waits for appointments was a source of growing discontent among patients. A demand for maximum waiting times for routine appointments is to be debated at the association's annual conference in July. A spokeswoman said: "We are aware of the burden on accident and emergency departments. If primary care services are not coping, the pressure will be felt elsewhere in the system."

However, Claire Rayner, who chairs the Patients' Association, said delays were an inevitable consequence of an appointments system. "In the old days the doctor would see as many as turned up and if there were a lot they would be rushed through. As soon as you bring in an appointments system you get an element of delay. It is not ideal and I hope doctors will take on board these findings and see what they can do."

The British Medical Association said the delays reflected the national shortage of 1,000 GPs. "We would like to devote more time to patients if we had the resources to do so," a spokeswoman said.

n Tighter restrictions on prescribing the heroin substitute methadone and better training for GPs in treating drug addicts are among proposals being considered by the Government.

The new guidelines for family doctors are part of the Government's anti- drug strategy and are intended to destroy the black market in methadone.

Under proposals from a medical working group, only GPs who have had extra training would be able to treat addicts and prescribe controlled drugs such as methadone.