How to get the most out of your GP

Your GP practice is there for you throughout your life. Dr Rachel Ward, the BBC Breakfast GP, shares how to get the most from yours, and stay as healthy as possible.

As a healthy, young adult, I didn’t really understand what GPs do as I had only ever seen one when I had a cough or sore throat as a child. Even as a medical student, I didn’t fully appreciate that GPs not only manage acute and chronic illness, but also keep people well and promote healthy living by providing screening, health checks, vaccinations and women’s health services.

Like many women, I have built a relationship with my GP through my evolving women’s health needs of contraception, screening, antenatal care and health checks and the continuity of that relationship over years, offers familiarity and reassurance.  

NHS primary care offers a comprehensive range of health promotion and wellbeing services that you may not be aware of or fully appreciate. As women, our health needs and priorities change with age, as will the support you can get from your GP.

How GPS can help with family planning and sexual health

Women’s health incorporates contraception, family planning and fertility, sexual health, urological and gynaecological care and menopause. Though some of these services need specialist input in hospital, the majority is managed in General Practice. 

Women in their teens or 20s often approach their GP for contraception which may be in the form of the pill or other methods such as coils, implants and injections which are available at most GP surgeries. Women’s contraceptive needs generally change with age and your GP is in an ideal position to advise what is best for you based on other health conditions and medication that you take.

If you are trying to conceive, your GP will advise you about health promotion and fertility. If you have problems conceiving, we will perform initial investigations for you and your partner and then refer you to appropriate fertility services. 

During pregnancy, your GP will care for your physical and emotional needs, together with your midwife, throughout your pregnancy. Sometimes women need specialist antenatal care and we can arrange the appropriate specialist input. In the post-natal period, we will perform a post-natal check of you and your baby and discuss and support you with any physical, mental health and social needs. 

How GPs can help with cancer screening

Engaging in health and cancer screening is crucial to identify the early signs of cancers and disease such as diabetes. In UK, cervical cancer screening is offered to women age 25-64 and is done by cervical smear test. This is a test done frequently at your GP practice by the nursing and medical team.

If you have concerns about the test, we are happy to talk to you beforehand. Bowel screening starts between age 50-59 (this is gradually changing so all 50 year olds are invited) up to age 75. You do a stool test at home and send it back in the post, every two years. This test looks for traces of blood in your stool that can represent a bowel cancer. Breast screening is offered to all women aged 50-71 in UK.

You will be invited to go for a mammogram every three years. Both bowel and breast screening do not take part at your GP practice but we can offer reassurance and advice about these services and will be informed by the screening services if any abnormality is found on your test.

How GPs can help with a health MOT

The NHS health check is offered to everyone age 40-74 every five years. It is held at your GP practice and involves blood tests and physical measurements such as blood pressure and weight to detect conditions such as high blood pressure or the early signs of diabetes.

Frequently, you will not be aware that you have these underlying problems so taking up this regular health “MOT” is a great way to stay fit and well over 40.

How GPs can help with your emotional wellbeing

As family doctors, we do not focus on just your physical health, we look after you as a whole person. We know that physical health is highly dependent on your emotional and mental wellbeing and we therefore have people on our team to offer increased support in this area.

Many GP practices have mental health workers and social prescribers to assist with all aspects of your life which can affect your well being. Whether it is financial stress, relationship problems or social isolation and loneliness, we can generally put you in touch with the correct support.

It is unfortunate and frustrating but GP services are particularly stretched at the moment and access to your GP is not as good we would like it to be. How can you ensure that you use your GP appropriately and get the most out of the consultations that you have?

Tired, stressed or anxious? Find out when to speak your GP about it, and when not to – plus what a GP suggests to help.

How to get the most from your GP consultation

Engage with different consulting methods where appropriate. There are times when you need to see a GP face to face as an examination or procedure is needed. However, for other issues a telephone, video or electronic consultation can be effective and convenient, especially for busy, working women.

Ensure your practice has your up to date mobile number and email address and consent to them contacting you via Text messaging to allow easy communication between you and your GP.

When you have a consultation with your GP, prioritise what you want to address and be honest about what you want to get out of the consultation. Is it a prescription? A referral? Do not take a long list of other issues that you are hoping to cover in one consultation. Each issue deserves appropriate time to be dealt with fully.

Help us to help you by using the right NHS service for your problem

Consider which NHS service is most appropriate for your problem. There are a wealth of services we can all access depending on the severity and urgency of our problem. By using the appropriate service, we ensure that everyone has access to the correct service when they need it.

The next time you have a problem, consider if consulting 111, checking the NHS website or speaking with a pharmacist are options rather than consulting with a GP or going to A&E.

Finally, we all have a responsibility to stay as well as we can. By engaging with screening, health checks, vaccinations and by taking care of ourselves with regular exercise and a healthy diet, we will stay fit and healthy while enjoying the benefits of this lifestyle.

Dr Rachel Ward is the BBC Breakfast GP, and an NHS GP in Oxfordshire.