Patient Information: Seeing The Doctor
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4. See the doctor
Why do I have to make an appointment?
Each doctor in this country has many patients under their care and a limited time to see each one. The appointment system ensures that everyone has a chance to see their doctor.
What happens when I go to see my doctor?
Making an appointment
- First, you must make an appointment to see your doctor at their surgery. You can do this by telephoning the surgery during opening hours or going there in person.
Going to the doctor's surgery
- On the day of your appointment, go to the surgery, making sure you arrive a few minutes before the time on your appointment card.
- Go to the reception desk and let the receptionist know that you have arrived. They will ask you to sit down in the waiting area.
- When your doctor is ready to see you, you will be called into their office. Listen for your name to be called out.
- If you cannot attend the appointment, let the surgery know as soon as possible so that they can give your appointment to another person – there is always a great demand to see doctors.
- Most surgeries have more than one doctor. Although you will be registered with just one of the doctors, you can see whichever doctor in the practice you want to, or can get an appointment with.
- If you have a specific need e.g. you wish to see a female doctor, then let the receptionist know this when you register, and again when you make an appointment.
Seeing the doctor
- When you meet the doctor, they may shake your hand or simply say ‘Hello'. Normally, you will be asked to sit down and tell the doctor about any symptoms you have had.
- It is important that you are honest with the doctor and tell them everything about your symptoms. There is no need to be embarrassed or ashamed; a doctor will have heard about people's private lives before and everything you say is held in strict confidence between you and the doctor. They cannot tell anyone else what you have told them.
- Obviously, the individual attitudes of doctors may vary, but your doctor will listen sympathetically to you and will not judge you. They may gently tell you off if they think you have done something that damages your health, but otherwise they just want to help you.
- A doctor will listen carefully to what you say about your symptoms and may give you a quick physical examination e.g. test your blood pressure, look into your eyes with a special light or listen to your heart. While they are doing this, they will draw on their many years of experience of treating sick people to work out what is wrong with you.
- The doctor may tell you immediately what they think is wrong with you. The solution to your problem may involve a change in lifestyle, medications that the doctor will prescribe for you or treatment in hospital.
- Sometimes, the doctor may not be able to determine what is wrong with you, and may suggest further tests that can be carried out at the surgery. However, some specialised tests can only be carried out by trained staff in hospitals, and so you will be referred to a specialist clinic at the hospital. Details of your appointment at the clinic will be sent to you through the post.
- If you need specialist treatment, the doctor will refer you to a more specialised doctor called a consultant, who normally works in a hospital. You will receive an appointment to see a consultant through the post.
What happens next?
- If the doctor has decided to give you medications, you will be given a prescription form to take away with you. Otherwise the doctor will simply say 'Goodbye' and you will leave their office.
- If you have been told to come back to see the doctor again, you can make your next appointment at reception before you leave the surgery.
Why didn't I get any medications?
Once a doctor has made a diagnosis, they will decide on the best treatment for you, which may not involve any medications. Medicine may not be appropriate because:
- many conditions cannot be cured with medicine, such as colds and other viral infections,
- your symptoms may not be clear enough to make an accurate diagnosis, and so you may be sent home for a few weeks. If your symptoms persist or get worse, then quickly make another appointment to see the doctor,
- many doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics (drugs to prevent or cure infection) unless absolutely necessary because of the increasing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,
- doctors do not like to give their patients too many medicines because of unpredictable interactions between different medicines when taken together,
- many medicines can be dangerous and have significant side-effects that would be detrimental in your case,
- you may not need medicine! Many conditions can either be prevented or cured by a simple change in lifestyle, such as giving up smoking, eating more healthily and getting enough exercise.
How do I get a home visit?
In an emergency or when the surgery is closed, a doctor may visit a very sick patient at home, rather than the patient going to the doctors' surgery. These visits are called home visits.
It is important to note that home visits will usually only be made in an emergency.
If you think that you or someone in your family has a medical emergency (perhaps your baby has a fever) that prevents you or them from getting to the doctor's surgery, or the doctor's surgery is closed, your doctor may visit you at home.
First, you need to telephone the doctor's surgery. The receptionist may ask a doctor to speak to you on the phone to arrange a visit. If the doctor is busy, the receptionist will take your name and ask a doctor to call you.
If the surgery is closed, a tape-recorded message will give you another telephone number to call. This is the doctor's emergency service for out-of-hours healthcare. If you telephone this number, you will speak to a doctor who will arrange to visit you at home as soon as possible.
Many other community workers such as midwives, community nurses and health visitors, will usually visit you at home for routine appointments.
How do I get emergency treatment without an appointment?
If you need some advice about your health or anything to do with healthcare in an emergency, here are some sources of help:
- Pharmacists. The local paper usually lists which chemist shops are open late or throughout the night. A trained pharmacist works in each one, and will be able to give you advice in many emergency situations.
- GP emergency cover. When the surgery is closed, a doctor can visit you at home (see the section above).
- Drop-in centres. Some cities have NHS Drop-in centres, where medical care is available 24 hours a day. You can telephone NHS Direct to find out if there is a Drop-in centre near you.
- NHS Direct. In an emergency, you can telephone NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. You will be able to talk to a nurse or other healthcare professional and ask for help. This service is available 24 hours a day. Interpreters also work for NHS Direct, so you will be able to use languages other than English to explain what is wrong.
- Accident and Emergency. If you think that you or someone you know needs urgent medical care, you can go to your nearest Accident and Emergency hospital department (usually known as 'A and E' or 'A&E'). Tell the staff at the reception desk what your emergency is and they will make sure that you are seen by medical staff. A&E can be very busy, and you may have to wait for over an hour to be seen by a doctor.
- Ambulance. If you think that you or someone you know needs immediate medical care, you should call 999 and ask for an ambulance. Calls to 999 are free. You will be asked for your address (or the address of the person who needs help) and for details of the emergency. The ambulance will arrive as soon as possible, and trained emergency staff will quickly work out what to do next.
If you need more information about what might happen when you go to see the doctor, these web pages may help you.
The Doctor–Patient Partnership website describes the doctor-patient relationship and the services that doctors provide. Some of the pages about specific health campaigns have been translated into other languages, but you may need to contact the website to access them.
This document on the Doctor–Patient Partnership website describes how to get the best from your doctor's surgery. The document is in English only.
The Patients Association is another group that looks after the needs of patients. It has produced this excellent booklet about seeing your doctor, how to get the best out of your appointment, different tests that can be done and referrals to other services. Currently, the booklet is only available in English.