Out of hours and out of reach?

Where out-of-hours care for medical problems is concerned, a little forward thinking is a sound investment. Various options are available - you just need to know how to find them.
Most of us are very good at burying our heads in the sand. We've certainly become more aware of our health generally - endless newspaper scare stories have seen to that. But, perhaps naturally, we prefer to believe that emergencies only happen to other people.

But where out-of-hours care for medical problems is concerned, a little forward thinking is a sound investment. Since 2003, most GPs have stopped doing home visits to their own patients at night. That means you're unlikely to be able to contact your own doctor 24 hours a day. Fortunately, there are lots of alternatives - you just need to know how to find them.

Seeing a GP

Your GP should be available between 8 am and 6.30 pm on weekdays. You can still see a GP at other times you're not well enough to wait until your own surgery re-opens. In most areas, groups of GPs work together in shifts, based in a local headquarters, to cover medical emergencies. You'll be asked to leave your details when you ring, and a doctor will ring you back. If you're well enough to travel, you're likely to be asked to go to the surgery in the headquarters. Otherwise, there are doctors travelling round the patch who can do home visits for people too sick to go in. You probably won't know the doctor, but they are all fully qualified GPs.

Most surgeries have an answering machine message which will give you the number of the out-of-hours headquarters. Otherwise, you can ring NHS Direct (or NHS 24 in Scotland) for details - read on for all the contact numbers you need!

NHS Direct/24

You can call an advisor at any time for details of out-of-hours services. You can also ring for medical advice - you'll be put through to a trained nurse if the query is medical. It could save you time and worry. If you have access to the internet, you can find out details of your local services that way. You can also access a huge range of information for patients about how you can treat yourself and when to seek professional help.

Website: NHS Direct (England)
24-hour helpline: 0845 4647

Website: NHS Direct (Wales)
24-hour helpline: 0845 4647

Website: NHS24 (Scotland)
24-hour helpline: 0845 424 2424

Website: Northern Ireland

Minor injuries units

Lots of areas now have a minor injuries unit - there are over 150 in England alone - and you can see a qualified nurse or doctor there. They can treat cuts; grazes; sprains; infected wounds; minor infections; or small broken bones (like fingers or toes). The waits are usually much shorter than in accident and emergency departments, and most are open for 12 hours a day, including Bank Holidays and weekends.

Planning ahead to save yourself a headache

There's nothing worse than having to make decisions when you're feeling truly ill. Your brain feels like it's full of cotton wool, and you just want to lie there and have somebody take care of you. So plan ahead and make a list of all the contact numbers you need to get help quickly. Here are some of the options you might want to think about:

  • Ask at your GP's surgery about their arrangements for out-of-hours medical problems. They may be able to give you the direct number of the out-of-hours GP service. This will save you from having to ring the GP's surgery and copy down the details from the answering machine
  • Ring NHS Direct or NHS24 and ask for details of local services. They'll be able to tell you the contact numbers and addresses of your out-of-hours service, A&E department and minor injuries unit if there's one near you
  • Put the numbers together on a card, along with the details of your next of kin. Then stick it on the fridge, or somewhere else you won't lose it
  • Don't forget to update the card every few months. We all change our mobile phones regularly these days, so you're especially likely to find your son's or daughter's number is out of date!

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.