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17 Apr 2020

Coronavirus: what to do about medical appointments including seeing your GP, dentist or optician

Help is still available and you shouldn't avoid seeking it. Here's what to do if you have a health problem that isn't related to COVID-19

Last updated: 9 June

Many non-urgent, routine health appointments have been cancelled or postponed due to coronavirus, but it's important not to assume your appointment has been cancelled and to still seek medical help if you need it.

Indeed, NHS bosses are urging patients to come forward if they have health concerns, rather than keeping quiet out of fears about COVID-19.

We've rounded up what's happening with different healthcare services, from doctors to dentists and opticians, so you know what your options are. You can click on the links below to head straight to a particular section:

    To find out what COVID-19 means for your rights, travel, health and lifestyle, check out the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?

    GP appointments: what to do if you need to speak to your doctor

    While it's true that GPs are under (even more) pressure at the moment, it's important to know that surgeries are still functioning and are there to help if you have health concerns.

    Professor John Howarth, strategic incident commander for COVID-19 at North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, said he was worried that people were not seeking the help they need for important conditions other than COVID-19. For example, troubling or unexplained symptoms that may help GPs to diagnose things, such as cancer, early.

    He also reiterated that hospitals and GP practices have dedicated coronavirus-free zones to treat patients safely if needed.

    GPs switch to phone and video appointments

    The main change you're likely to encounter is that, where possible, your GP surgery is likely to have switched primarily to offering telephone or video call appointments.

    Half of the Which? members we surveyed between 3 and 7 April 2020 already had existing appointments changed to phone consultations, and most surgeries have now moved to phone or video appointments where possible.

    If you need to contact a GP, you should phone them in the first instance - don't go into the surgery in person.

    Be prepared to wait a little longer on the phone or to get an appointment, as GP surgeries may be working with reduced staff numbers, increased call volume, or both.

    Only go in person if advised to by a health professional, who will explain what you need to do.

    Getting hold of medicines and prescriptions

    You can still order repeat prescriptions from your GP online if you're set up with this (usually via an app or the practice website). Find out more via the NHS online health services guideor ask your GP practice.

    If not, you can do this over the phone with your GP. Your GP can then send the prescription electronically to a nominated pharmacy.

    Some pharmacies, including Boots, run an online prescription delivery service and many pharmacies across the UK are providing prescription deliveries for people who are shielding.

    Find out about changes to pharmacy services due to coronavirus.

    Coronavirus advice for pregnant women - tips on what to do if you're expecting a baby

    Hospital outpatient appointments

    Non-urgent outpatient hospital appointments have been put on hold for the past few months. Over the coming weeks, some hospitals will start to re-introduce non-urgent services, depending on capacity.

    If you have an appointment booked that needs to change, you'll receive a letter or phone call about what to do next. Some hospitals may be able to offer you a telephone or video appointment instead, prioritising people who are deemed vulnerable.

    Some appointments, including some cancer treatments and mental health services, will still go ahead in person, so don't assume yours isn't going ahead.

    Many hospitals are advising that people still come in for their appointment unless they hear otherwise. If you're unsure, or have concerns about going in, call the hospital to discuss it.

    You should not go to an appointment if you have symptoms of coronavirus. If you can't make an appointment for this reason, let your hospital know so they can advise you on what to do next.

    Processes may vary between hospitals, or change as the situation develops, so it's best to double-check your hospital's website for specific information about changes to outpatient appointments.

    Attending A&E: what to do in an emergency

    Figures from health bodies across the UK have shown a drop in A&E admissions, which have been attributed to changes in behaviour due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Louise Buchanan, consultant cardiologist at North Cumbria Integrated Care, said: 'We have noticed that the number of patients coming to our hospitals with medical emergencies, such as heart attack or stroke, has fallen significantly over the past few weeks.'

    The message from the NHS is clear - do still use NHS emergency services if you're very unwell.

    Stephen Powis, national medical director at NHS England, reiterated last week that 'the NHS is also there for you if you have the symptoms of a stroke or heart attack'.

    He said: 'The worry is that those who genuinely need help are staying at home, instead of seeking it. But when you're in cardiac arrest, suffering a stroke or appendicitis, it will not pass and urgent medical attention is necessary.'

    You should call 999 in a medical emergency, which might include:

    • Loss of consciousness
    • An acute confused state
    • Fits that aren't stopping
    • Chest pain
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Severe bleeding that can't be stopped
    • Severe allergic reactions
    • Severe burns or scalds.

    And if someone is having a heart attack or stroke. Find out more about the signs of a heart attack or stroke from the NHS.

    Getting dental care while in lockdown

    Dentist are now allowed to re-open in England, but many have said they aren't ready. This is due in part to a lack of PPE and needing longer to prepare for social distancing in practices. Reduced capacity plus a backlog of pre-lockdown appointments mean patients may face long waits for new or rescheduled appointments.

    Around the UK, timetables for re-opening are different:

    • In Scotland NHS practices are due to start opening up for face-to-face consultations for urgent and routine care sometime this month. Private practices in Scotland can now reopen.
    • In Wales dentists are expected to start seeing patients who had non-urgent appointments cancelled or postponed from October. The reinstatement of routine care is not set to return until January 2021.
    • In Northern Ireland practices are returning to face-to-face urgent care, but non-urgent care is still on hold with no proposed dates yet for the next phase.

    Dental surgeries are still staffing phones to field enquiries from patients, and dentists are able to provide advice over the phone and prescribe antibiotics and analgesics via telephone for serious cases.

    Emergency dental care

    Some dental problems inevitably require in-person treatment. Rather than seeing someone at your usual practice, patients with emergency dental problems are meant to be sent to urgent dental care centres, which are being set up across the UK at the moment.

    If you have a dental emergency and are otherwise in good health, you can call your dental practice who may refer you to urgent care. Do not visit your practice without calling first.

    If you have a dental emergency and are self-isolating with symptoms of coronavirus, contact NHS 111.

    Emergencies which may be referred to urgent care include:

    • Facial swelling
    • Loss of a permanent tooth
    • Post-extraction bleeding
    • Severe dental pain
    • Fractured teeth
    • Abscess or soft tissue infections.

    Caring for your teeth at home

    The Oral Health Foundation outlines some tips for keeping your teeth healthy at home while routine dental appointments are paused:

    • Brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
    • Brush last thing at night, before you go to bed
    • Cut down on sugar, particularly sugary drinks
    • Use interdental brushes or floss to clean inbetween the teeth.

    What to do if you need to see the opticians

    Routine optical appointments have been paused across the UK, so it's likely that any you did have coming up will be cancelled or rescheduled.

    But opticians have also emphasised that there is help available if you need it. If you have a problem, you should still phone your optometrist.

    Virtual appointments may be available and in some situations, opticians are able to prescribe glasses and contact lenses remotely.

    If you've broken your glasses or your prescription is out of date and you need a new one, it may be possible for your opticians to issue a temporary supply of glasses or contact lenses without an examination.

    Many practices are also able to do simple repairs by post.

    Specsavers has launched a new service (Specsavers RemoteCare) where people can have a video or telephone consultation with an optometrist, which will cover concerns including changes to eye sight, prescriptions, and contact lens aftercare.

    Urgent eye problems

    It's important not to ignore serious eye issues and problems with vision. If you have any concerns, or have noticed any unusual issues with your eyes, don't put off seeking advice.

    Symptoms or problems may include:

    • A sudden change in vision, or loss of vision
    • Eye pain or red eye
    • If you've broken your glasses, or have an issue with your contact lenses, and need them in order to see properly.

    If you're experiencing any of these, you should phone your opticians and it will advise you on what to do next.

    Some practices can offer essential and urgent care in person. If they aren't able to, they will advise you on what to do next.

    Waiting for cataract surgery?

    Cataract surgery has also been postponed until further notice. In most cases, cataract surgery is about perfecting vision and it is therefore usually safe to wait six months.

    Don't put off asking for help if you're waiting for cataract surgery, though, as eyesight issues might be symptomatic of other problems.

    Equally, if you're waiting for cataract surgery and are struggling with your eyesight, you may be able to get a temporary pair of glasses to help.

    Is it safe to wear contact lenses?

    The College of Optometrists advises that evidence suggests it's safe to continue wearing contact lenses if you don't have COVID-19 or any associated symptoms.

    You should, as usual, practice careful contact lens hygiene, and thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling your lenses.

    If you are ill, you should stop wearing contact lenses until you're better - this is the same advice for COVID-19 as it is for cold and flu.

    Caring for your glasses at home

    The College of Optometrists advises that you clean your glasses regularly using soapy water and dry them using a clean glasses cloth or clean tea towel.

    Do not use antibacterial gel for cleaning your glasses.

    Hearing aids and audiology

    Hearing tests, hearing aid assessments and hearing aid fittings for new patients have been put on hold.

    If you're waiting for new hearing aids to be fitted, you should contact your hearing aid provider. It should be able to give you an idea of when you'll be able to get them fitted.

    In the meantime, Action on Hearing Loss advises that assisted listening devices - such as conversation amplifiers and hearing loops - may help.

    Your smartphone may also be able to aid you. Apple has a feature called Live Listen, which works with some brands of wireless headphone to amplify sounds, while Android users can download apps such as Google's Sound Amplifierto similar effect.

    Specsavers' new RemoteCare service is offering hearing consultations with audiologists via video and telephone.

    What to do if you have a problem with your hearing aids

    The vast majority of hearing aid providers are able to repair hearing aids via post, and also provide replacement batteries and tubing in this way.

    Contact your hearing aid provider if you need adjustments, repairs or replacement parts.

    Action on Hearing Loss has produced guidance on supporting people with hearing loss at home during the pandemic, including tips on solving common hearing aid problems.

    Find out more in our guide to getting used to hearing aids.

    If you suddenly lose your hearing

    Contact NHS 111or your GP as soon as possible if you experience sudden hearing loss, as this may require urgent care.

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