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Can’t get a doctor appointment, where can I go?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Many patients are experiencing frustration and irritation at being unable to access doctor appointments as they did before the pandemic. Some complain that they would like to see a doctor face to face and they are only offered phone appointments, others that they can’t get through to the reception staff or that all the appointments are booked that day by the time they’ve gotten through.

There has been an unprecedented demand for healthcare since the pandemic and a shortage of doctors and other health professionals that pre-date the pandemic. They are doing their best to serve the public in challenging times, but that might seem like cold comfort when you feel your problem needs attention. So, what are your options? Let’s talk you through where to go and when.

Is there another way my doctor can help?

You can register for online services, and this may be a fast-track way to order prescriptions, ask a quick question or request an appointment.

Many medical practices ask you to fill out an online questionnaire. While endless questions might be tedious, it’s worth being clear about your problem, how urgent it is, and any expectations you have for treatment. The doctor that triages this may offer an appointment in person rather than the phone first, or they may arrange tests or prescriptions without you needing an appointment. They may diagnose a rash based on the photo you send without the inconvenience of coming in. They will also triage the urgency, depending on the information you provide.

Offices have introduced a range of allied health professionals (AHPs) – pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists – who can help with specific aspects of your care and may be able to prescribe medication. The online form may be a way to access one of these AHPs.

Some areas offer extended access doctor appointments, which are pre-bookable or same-day appointments in the early morning, evenings, or weekends.

Some areas offer direct access to a physiotherapy service or psychology service, and you can refer yourself without having to see a doctor. Your doctor's reception staff or website may be able to direct you.

Most dentists offer emergency or same-day appointments. If you experience problems after hours, your dentist’s answering service may tell you where to seek help, or if you don’t have a dentist, 911 will be able to advise you.

When should I go to the emergency room?

The emergency department is there for serious conditions that can’t wait – chest pain, difficulty in breathing, a child with a very high temperature and rash, and an elderly person with confusion and a likely urine infection.

They can order blood tests, ECGs for the heart, urine tests, and X-rays there and then, and issue the right medication such as intravenous antibiotics. They can treat a suspected heart attack, stroke, injury from a car accident, sepsis, or a child with meningitis.

They will triage your problem at the beginning, rating it in terms of urgency, so you may have to sit and wait to be seen, and they won’t have your medical records to know other conditions or your usual medication. But they can provide urgent medication or other treatment, should you need it.

When should I visit an Urgent Care Center?

Consider an urgent care center as a halfway house between the emergency room and the doctor’s office. It’s usually a unit within a hospital or other healthcare setting that is run by doctors and open for at least 12 hours a day, every day. You can usually drop in, or there may be same-day appointments available.

This team can treat suspected broken bones, ear or throat infections, minor burns, urine infections, insect bites or skin rashes, to name a few.

They can order same-day tests like blood tests, X-rays, or an ECG, and they can refer you to the emergency department if necessary.

An urgent care or treatment center, walk-in center, and minute clinic are all names for essentially the same setup.

When should I go to a pharmacist?

Pharmacists are experts at helping with minor ailments and common problems – that unsettled tummy or a nagging headache, a muscle sprain, sore, dry eyes, a heat rash, or chicken pox. They can offer treatment there and then help with your problem. They often have a consultation room if you need to speak in private. They can also suggest when to see a doctor.

They are your first port of call for medication inquiries – how much, how often, and what side effects.

Most prescriptions are sent electronically to a pharmacy of your choosing. If you have repeat prescriptions, your designated pharmacy may be able to help you order these when they are due.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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