Dr Laurance Buckman: Reassurance is the key to keeping the public calm

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The Independent Online

Dealing with patients' concerns over swine flu is taking vast amounts of doctors' time away from patients that are actually ill. More of my time nowadays is spent reassuring and informing patients about swine flu than actually diagnosing them with it.

The coverage and response to swine flu has led to increased public anxiety, and it's a strain that most GPs across the country are feeling – some a lot greater than others.

While patients are clearly concerned, many of the queries we are receiving at the moment are coming from people who are not actually ill, and questions that don't necessarily warrant a GP's time. They include: where to buy Tamiflu in foreign countries while on holiday, whether children can contract the virus from friends, or the pros and cons of anti-viral drugs. Important questions no doubt, but not when they are interrupting other patients' time in surgery.

Concerned callers can ring multiple times a day often during surgery hours. Each query generates paperwork, while responding to phone calls outside of surgery time is adding hours to each side of my day. Then, of course, there are the people who are actually ill with swine flu. We planned to contain them in another part of the surgery, yet there is not sufficient space to always do that. My receptionist has now been trained in how to detect symptoms and knows how to intercept patients that might have contracted swine-flu so that they can be told not to come in. Instead I will talk to them directly and make a judgement whether to provide Tamiflu.

For the ones that do need it, I can often find myself engaged in conversations about Tamiflu. Many swine flu sufferers have read about the side-effects on the internet and you can frequently find yourself debating with patients who need it but don't want it (as well as those who want it but don't need it).

It's worth remembering that my surgery is not even located in a swine flu hotspot. So far I have diagnosed around 40 cases of swine flu (nearly as many as the whole of Northern Ireland), but the number of daily consultations has risen by around 10 per cent in recent months. There are much more serious hotspots across the country that are seeing daily consultation increases of as much as 500 per cent. And there is simply no facility on Earth that is geared up to deal with that rise in workload.

The telephone service will no doubt relieve the strain on GPs, yet the Government needs to readdress the balance in its messages. It needs to be more reassuring. After all it's worth remembering that the effects of swine flu are – so far – still not as severe as ordinary flu. We just don't see a daily monitored death rate that induces the same levels of fear.

Dr Buckman is chairman of the GP Committee, British Medical Association