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How YOU can help the NHS weather the winter storm: DR PHILIPPA KAYE on protecting against the flu and going to your cancer screening – after a record one million ambulance calls were made to 999 last month alone

  • Numerous nationwide lockdowns have created pent-up demand in other areas
  • There were around 3.6m fewer elective procedures from April 2020 to June 2021
  • This month, ambulance trusts in some areas had to turn to the military for help
  • What can you do to help with backlog? Dr Philippa Kaye’s answer is, quite a lot

The warnings about an overstretched NHS ‘at breaking point’ seem never-ending. Locking down the country more than once – and diverting services to treating Covid – has created pent-up demand in other areas.

According to the British Medical Association, there were roughly 3.6 million fewer elective procedures, and more than 28 million fewer regular hospital outpatient appointments between April 2020 and June 2021. That’s one heck of a backlog, and it’s not even winter yet, when more people generally get ill and need help.

In fact many of my hospital colleagues are saying winter has come early, with demand for some services already through the roof. In July, amoxicillin 875 mg and alcohol the ambulance service fielded a record one million 999 calls. This month, ambulance trusts in the South Central, South West, North East and East of England areas had to turn to the military for help. Meanwhile, GPs last month conducted 31.5 million appointments.

You might be thinking: well, what can I do about it? My answer is, quite a lot.

Plan ahead: More people fall ill during cold snaps, so it pays to get protected. Many of my hospital colleagues are saying winter has come early, with demand for some services already through the roof, writes Dr Philippa Kaye

STILL NOT HAD A JAB? GET ONE!

While many services were scaled back during the lockdowns, routine vaccinations, for both children and adults, weren’t. But there was a dramatic drop in people coming forward for their jabs.

It goes without saying: if you’ve still not had a Covid vaccine, get one. I’m still hearing people talking about ‘medical exemptions’ – but not a single health condition makes you unable to have any of the vaccines available.

If you’re allergic to a specific ingredient in one vaccine – which is rare – it’s likely you’ll be able to have one of the others. Certain patients – people undergoing brain surgery, for instance – might have to delay the vaccine before and after their operation. But basically, it’s safe for everyone. You only need to look at the middle-aged, unvaccinated patients with Covid in intensive care wards to understand why banking on ‘natural immunity’ isn’t clever.

Official recommendations about who will get a booster are likely to be announced soon, but it looks as if it will be the most vulnerable – very elderly people, and those with specific health problems that make the vaccine less effective. If you’re not invited, don’t worry.

A festival-goer is pictured getting an injection from a nurse during a walk-in Covid-19 vaccination clinic at Reading Festival in Berkshire on August 26

PROTECT AGAINST FLU

There are other vaccinations you should think of too. These aren’t only vital to prevent yourself needing hospital treatment – but they’ll stop you passing infections on to other, potentially vulnerable people around you.

The flu vaccination programme will be extended to all over-50s again this year. Invitations for the jab will go out in September, or you can call and book in with most major high street chemists, including those in supermarkets.

Pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions – such as diabetes, heart disease, and more severe forms of asthma – that make them higher-risk are eligible, and should book in without delay.

The pneumococcal vaccine, or pneumonia vaccine, is another one to get. It’s available to over-65s, and babies under two. It’s a one-off, rather than annual jab, as it gives long-lasting immunity to a bacteria that cause a range of diseases, including meningitis and pneumonia.

The shingles jab is also important. Shingles is a nasty viral disease that causes blisters on the skin, and intense, often disabling pain that linger.

The scheduling is a bit confusing – GPs automatically invite people shortly after their 70th birthday, but you can actually have the vaccine at any time up to the age of 80.

The jab works less well for those over 80, so we don’t offer it to this age group.

Other vaccinations aren’t only vital to prevent yourself needing hospital treatment – but they’ll stop you passing infections on to other, potentially vulnerable people around you (file photo)

…AND GET KIDS COVERED TOO

Children between two and 16 should have the flu vaccine too. They get it as a nasal spray, mostly at school, and letters will be going out informing parents soon.

People worry about young children having a vaccine without them there, but they needn’t – with this vaccine, a dose is simply sprayed up each nostril.

They might get slightly watery eyes and sneeze a few times, but that’s it.

Children aged between six months and two, with long-term health problems, can also have the flu vaccine, as an injection.

Over-12s who live with someone who is clinically vulnerable to Covid can have the Covid jab, and the vaccine was also recently extended to clinically vulnerable children in this age group, as well as healthy 16- and 17-year-olds. Make sure your youngster is up to date with all their other vaccines.

SEEK RIGHT SOURCE FOR HELP

If you have a cold, don’t assume it’s not Covid. Take a lateral flow test – they’re available free at local chemists.

If you have a fever, or another Covid symptom, you should isolate, and get a PCR test – 111.nhs.uk or nhs.uk/get-tested are the best places to go to get one. Or call 119. Stay isolated until you get the result. If it’s positive, stay isolated, obviously.

We’re not dodging patients. We simply don’t want to put people off seeking help for mental health crises and cancer by crowding surgeries, writes Dr Philippa Kaye (pictured)

If it’s negative, and you feel ill because of another viral infection we will simply advise to rest, stay hydrated and take paracetamol. If you are unsure, speak to a pharmacist. Don’t visit the GP, unless you become more unwell.

Likewise, you don’t need a GP appointment or help from 111 for a sore throat, earache, conjunctivitis and other common ailments. These are also a pharmacist’s territory.

If you have a dental problem, go to the dentist. I can only offer painkillers.

We’re not dodging patients. We simply don’t want to put people off seeking help for mental health crises and cancer by crowding surgeries.

If you’re worried something is seriously wrong – a new lump, a cough that’s hung around for three weeks, if there’s blood in the loo – don’t put it off. Persist if you can’t get an appointment. We are open.

Chest pain, loss of sensation in one side of the body, a fit or breathing difficulties, and confusion are all reasons to call 999 without delay. Don’t think ‘Oh, I don’t want to bother anyone… it’s not an emergency’. In fact, you’ll end up putting more strain on the NHS as you’ll be harder to treat than someone who gets help promptly.

If a child seems unwell, isn’t urinating, is floppy or difficult to rouse, get to A&E. On the other hand, if they’re full of cold, with a bit of a temperature, maybe being sick, but generally still happy and playing, you don’t need to see us.

DON’T MISS CANCER SCREENING

If we pick up cancer at the earliest stages, it’s far easier to treat and survival is much more likely. But it’s also less of a strain on the NHS, in terms of long-term treatment. So you’re doing no one a favour by not booking in for that breast or cervical screening, or not returning your bowel cancer screening kit.

We’re hearing that some hospitals are having astonishingly high rates of no-shows for routine tests. If you can’t make an appointment, call and let people know, as even on the day they might be able to give it to someone else.

If we pick up cancer at the earliest stages, it’s far easier to treat and survival is much more likely. But it’s also less of a strain on the NHS, in terms of long-term treatment (file photo)

HAVE A COLD WEATHER PLAN

GPs are often referred to as the ‘jack of all trades of the medicine world’ – but if only our skills did include plumbing and heating, we’d save many more lives.

Roughly 10,000 deaths every year are due to cold homes, as low temperatures raise the risk of heart attacks, strokes, falls and pneumonia. So make sure your heating isn’t going to go on the blink.

Construct a loose ‘cold weather plan’.

I’m not talking about stockpiling tinned food – but, if you don’t know your neighbours, introduce yourself and make sure there is someone close by you can call for help with shopping.

It’s been a difficult 18 months for everyone, and both doctors and patients are fatigued. But if the pandemic showed us anything, it was just how much communities can pull together and help one another out. Long may that continue.

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