GP leaders launched guidance on how GP practices in England should prepare for, and operate during, a flu pandemic.
The new guidance, produced jointly by the BMA's GPs committee (GPC) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), and supported by the Department of Health in England, warns that a pandemic will put the NHS under "unprecedented pressure" and that general practice in particular will be "stretched beyond its current limits."
It predicts that during the pandemic's peak an average GP practice could see an extra 186 cases of flu a week. The guidance says sensible preparation now will make the difference between just 'getting through' a pandemic and maximising the number of lives that can be saved.
There have been three pandemics in the last century which have caused public health emergencies and many experts believe another one is overdue. It is, however, impossible to predict its timing.
The BMA/RCGP guidance is intended as a practical guide for GPs and practice managers. It details how GP surgeries will be expected to adapt from their usual method of working and gives information and guidance on the following:
- Every practice will have to follow "command and control arrangements" which will be monitored and co-ordinated by Primary Care Trusts to ensure there is a robust, uniform response.
- GP surgeries will be expected to 'buddy up' with neighbouring practices to share resources and exchange staff as necessary. The guidance recommends that practices should ensure these contingency plans are in place by 31 March 2009.
- There will be changes to the death certification process, including bringing in retired doctors to ease the pressure on local services.
- Patients with flu will get access to antiviral medicine via a new National Pandemic Flu Line Service, not via their GP surgery.
- Additional capacity in the health service will be created by prioritising services and patients in a systematic and ethical manner.
- How practices can minimise the spread of infection, for example by setting up separate waiting areas for patients with flu.
Dr Laurence Buckman, Chairman of the BMA's GP Committee, said:
"We've seen over Christmas how seasonal winter pressures put strain on the health service but this is in a situation where the system is still operating on a normal basis. During a pandemic the NHS would have to work differently - it's a major health emergency and as such requires a totally different way of helping patients. Family doctors need to be prepared for this and this guidance has been produced to help them with their planning.
During a pandemic many people will get flu and a few will be very poorly, but there will still be people suffering from other illnesses and they will also need our full attention. So plans are being put in place now to make sure general practice and the health service not only copes during the crisis, but does the best it can do to minimise the spread and impact of a flu pandemic in the UK."
Dr Maureen Baker, Honorary Secretary at the RCGP said: "General Practice is a critically important service which needs to be able to function as well as possible during a flu pandemic. This guidance provides practices with clear instructions on the steps they need to take now and during the pandemic, so that they can look after people with flu, and other emergencies, as well as can be done in very difficult circumstances."