With the seemingly never-ending focus on restrictions and hospital admission rates at the top of everyone’s minds, it’s a challenge to remember that we all have more routine health matters that might need attending to.
The ongoing requests to stay inside, the fear of exposing ourselves or our loved ones to higher infection risk in transport or healthcare settings, as well as a general feeling of “not wanting to make a fuss”, have all meant that what would normally have been routine GP appointments, check-up or treatments have now come to seem onerous – especially for people who are elderly or vulnerable.
But thanks to the strong partnership that has developed between GP surgeries and Ealing Community Transport (ECT) over the last few years, the pressures of missed health appointments, under-served patients and over-burdened healthcare staff have found some relief across Ealing, even with the added challenges of the coronavirus.
Gordon House Surgery is an impressive example of what can happen when a can-do attitude and some innovative thinking are applied to solving such problems.
Of the 73 GP surgeries across this west London borough, Gordon House is the biggest by some way, with more than 15,000 patients on its books and a staff of more than 40, from doctors and nurses to a busy team of receptionists and administrators.
Go back just a few years ago, and Gordon House doctors were carrying out a large number of time-consuming home visits, for patients who had no means of getting to the surgery for their health issues – either for one-off problems or for regular procedures such as blood tests and dressings.
Then the surgery started working with ECT’s innovative PlusBus for Health (a partnership with Ealing CCG) – and everything changed.
“The doctors used to have a minimum of 10 home visits a day,” explains Practice Nurse Marie McDermott. “These patients weren’t housebound but they just had no transportation – they were elderly and maybe didn’t have family nearby, didn’t have friends who could help because perhaps people were working, and a lot of them couldn’t afford to get private taxis.
“Since ECT started up the PlusBus for Health it has cut the number of home visits dramatically,” says Marie. “We went from 10 visits every day to 5 visits each week, depending on the time of year.
“For the nurses as well, it has meant blood test patients can come here so that takes pressure off the domiciliary phlebotomists, and patients also come to us for dressings, which reduces the pressure on the district nursing team. It also cuts down on a large amount of wastage, in both staff hours and finance,” she points out. “If patients can come to us for their dressings then a wound might heal after maybe three weeks, whereas if they had to go into hospital with a wound that hasn’t healed because it hasn’t been treated when it should, it could cost the NHS thousands.”
Besides time and cost, Marie says there are other important reasons why patients like using the PlusBus for Health. These have been particularly significant during the months dealing with the pandemic. “People want to get out of their houses and come into the surgery, and they love their doctors,” says Marie. “A lot of these patients live on their own – they don’t see anybody apart from the postman.” She adds that elderly patients like to have a good chat when they come into reception – something which they also enjoyed on their bus journeys in pre-Covid times. “It’s just nice for them to have human contact which they wouldn’t normally get,” she says.
Patients also report that the journey itself is a positive experience. “There’s never anything negative said about ECT. The drivers are lovely – I couldn’t fault the service at all,” says Marie. “There’s one elderly couple both in their 80s and the wife is the main carer – she’s delighted because it means she and her husband can come here together. The PlusBus team are never in a rush, always friendly, courteous and happy to wait. They pick them up and take them to where they need to go, then take them back home again when they are finished.
Although the coronavirus has increased the pressure and complexity of meeting the healthcare needs of vulnerable patients, Ruby Jamil, Lead Administrator at Gordon House, says patients and staff alike have great confidence in the high standards of health and safety that ECT maintains in the PlusBus for Health service. “We wouldn’t offer anything to patients that is not safe during the pandemic. If they need an appointment and transport needs to be booked then they know it’s safe to travel – that’s why the service is still continuing,” she says.
Since the coronavirus vaccines first became available in December, ECT and Gordon House have also been working together to ensure people can travel to Ealing’s vaccination centres to get their jabs.
It’s a simple and efficient booking service, says Ruby. “We fill in a form with the date and time of the appointment and whether the patient needs a wheelchair or other assistance. It takes literally five minutes to fill in – then we just email the form over to ECT and we get a confirmation and reference number back pretty quickly.
“There’s somebody called Sharon who co-ordinates the appointments at ECT and she’s really, really good – all our receptionists say she is amazing and that she should get a special mention because she is so efficient and helpful and always tries her best to meet our requests.”
Practice Nurse Marie adds: “It’s absolutely fantastic that the bus can take the patients for their vaccinations because it not only cuts the pressure on us as a surgery but also helps the patients get their vaccines as quickly as possible. We have been quite proactive in reassuring the patients that everything is as clean as it can be – and because the PlusBus is a personal, door-to-door service they feel very safe and secure.
“They are delighted with the service because they are getting their vaccine and a lot of them can’t see their families, they can’t get out – so they see this as a means to an end when they can start getting out and socialising and seeing their own families again. Many have grandchildren or great-grandchildren so it’s going to make a huge difference to family life for them eventually.”
Looking beyond the pandemic, the Gordon House team is keen to build further on the relationship with ECT, with ideas around increasing the use of the PlusBus for other groups in need, such as young mums with disabled children, or patients with mental health problems. “I didn’t actually know that we could book the PlusBus for mental health patients,” says Receptionist Pauline Leung. “I spoke to one young woman this week who said she couldn’t leave the house because of her anxiety, and if I had known, I would have suggested it to her.”
Pauline also suggests that the PlusBus might offer some tips for improving other health transport services: “It would be great if ECT PlusBus could transport patients to every hospital in London – that would be a godsend it absolutely would!”
Practice Nurse Marie adds that while some other health transport services might not be very popular, the opposite is true for ECT’s PlusBus for Health. “Everybody thinks it’s absolutely fantastic. If you can keep the patients happy and you can keep the clinicians happy, then everyone’s happy!
“We’d like to say a huge thank you to ECT and Sharon and the team and all the drivers. It makes for a good partnership with everyone pulling together. It just makes our lives easier – and for the patients it’s a lifesaver, and I know they are a lot happier for it.”
To find out more about PlusBus for Health, or to book your transport for a surgery or vaccination appointment, please speak to your surgery or get in touch: call 020 8813 3214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org