Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

GPs flu pandemic workload warning

Flu virus
A flu pandemic is overdue, experts say

GP surgeries have been told to prepare for seeing nearly 200 extra patients a week in the event of a flu pandemic.

The Royal College of GPs and British Medical Association guidance said surgeries should "buddy up" with neighbouring ones to share resources.

And they said UK GPs may even need to set up separate waiting rooms for flu patients and draft in retired doctors to help with death certification.

Experts have been predicting a flu pandemic is long overdue.

These are very different from the seasonal flu outbreak that has been seen recently.

Pandemics are global outbreaks and tend to occur three or four times a century, killing millions.

The worst one in the 20th century was in 1918 which caused 250,000 deaths in the UK alone.

Imminent

Scientists believe the likely source of a future pandemic could be bird flu mutating into a deadly human strain.

If such an event happened, it is estimated up to 700,000 people could die in the UK.

But the guidance produced for GPs warned they would end up treating many more patients.

Up to a half of the population could end up being infected with flu during a pandemic of which a third could need GP care.

Such a scenario would mean more than 14,000 cases per 100,000 of the population - the equivalent of 186 cases for the average three-doctor surgery during the peak of the outbreak.

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
Laurence Buckman, of the British Medical Association

The guidance for GPs comes after the government has produced national plans to minimise the impact of a pandemic.

The government has already started stockpiling antiviral medicines to limit the severity of the illness, while provisions have been made to restrict travel and public gatherings such as football matches.

Health staff have also received information about their role in a pandemic, but this guidance adds more detail to that.

Local health bosses working for primary care trusts will be in overall charge of operations.

But the guidance acknowledges that during a pandemic GPs will need to be in a position to act straightaway.

It said provisions should be made with other GPs to share staff and equipment.

While steps such as having separate waiting rooms for flu patients could minimise the spread of infection.

However, GPs will not be in charge of dispensing the antiviral drugs.

Instead, these will be held at guarded locations with sufferers having to phone a flu hotline to arrange a nominated friend to pick up the medicine.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA's GPs 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."



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