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Accessing health services

If you have an existing medical condition, or if you become unwell, you might be particularly worried about how to access treatment, medication and appointments at the moment. Here's what you need to know. 

Other illnesses don't go away just because of coronavirus. If you have an existing condition and need to access health services, or if you develop symptoms that aren't coronavirus related, it's important you get the treatment you need. 

The NHS has made it clear that health services are still there for those who need them and that you should not ignore symptoms.


What should I do if I'm unwell?

We know that some people have avoided accessing the NHS throughout the pandemic, but it's really important that you get help if you are feeling unwell. Your health is just as important as before and you should seek the care and treatment that you need.

Although many coronavirus restrictions have now been lifted, rules are still in place to keep you safe in hospitals and GP surgeries. This includes asking people to wear masks and socially distance, as well as making sure there's regular cleaning.

If you become unwell you can still speak to your GP, although they may do this over the phone rather than face-to-face.

If you have an existing health condition, you should continue to follow your treatment plan. If you have any concerns then contact your GP or specialist.

Urgent healthcare needs

The NHS has introduced a new system called 111 First so people can get the help they need if they have an urgent but non-life-threatening problem. It's designed to help reduce waiting times and overcrowding.

You can call NHS 111 and they can then book you a time slot at your local A&E if it's needed. The service can also book you a GP appointment or an appointment at an urgent care centre. 

However, if you need to you can still access these services without having a slot booked this way. 

If there is a medical emergency you should always call 999.

GP appointments

Your GP surgery is still open and is able to provide care, so you shouldn't put off getting any help you need. Ring the surgery or visit their website for an appointment if you need to see the doctor. 

Your appointment may take place over the phone or by online video chat for the time being, but if you feel like you need a face-to-face appointment you’re able to request one. You shouldn't go to the surgery in person unless you're advised to do so. 

Your GP may have postponed routine appointments, such as medicine reviews, check-ups, and annual health checks. It's important that you let your GP know if you've developed any symptoms since they saw you last so they can decide if you need to be seen.

I don't feel comfortable having remote appointments

Throughout the pandemic, many people have had to have their health appointments over the phone or by video call. While this has worked well for some people, we know that many others have found this process difficult.

If you're worried about having remote appointments, speak to your GP or consultant to see if you can change them to be face-to-face. GPs have been told they need to continue offering in-person appointments so in most cases they should be able to do this, unless there is a clinical reason not to.

If you have health conditions that stop you from being able to have remote appointments, for example you have impaired hearing, it's really important that you tell the health professional so they can make a different plan that works for you.

Remember, if you're showing symptoms of coronavirus, have tested positive, or have been told to isolate, you shouldn't have face-to-face appointments.

There are also some things you can try to make remote appointments easier for you:

  • Try to find a place in your house that will be quiet, and where you can talk to the doctor in private.
  • Before the appointment, take some time to think of what you want to say and any questions you might want to ask.
  • If you're worried about using technology, for example video calls, ask a friend or relative for help, or let your doctor know so they can help you through the process.

My appointment or treatment has been postponed. What should I do?

Many older people have had appointments, treatment, and operations postponed, and we know that some people are still waiting for these to be rescheduled.

We know that this will be upsetting and worrying for many people, especially if you are in pain or are unsure when you might be seen.

If you haven’t heard about when your appointment might be rescheduled to, you can contact your hospital to ask what is happening. If you aren’t sure of the number, contact the hospital switchboard and they can direct you to the right department.

It’s also important to keep an eye on how you are feeling. If your condition changes or your symptoms worsen, it’s important to let your GP or consultant know so they can decide on the best treatment option for you.

There is also support available to help you through this time. Lots of charities have helplines for specific conditions and can provide you with information and advice.

Waiting for treatment, surgery, or tests can be worrying and may also be making you feel anxious or low. It’s a good idea to talk about how you are feeling with a friend or family member. If you are struggling to cope or feel things are getting on top of you have a chat with your GP.


How are appointments and treatment taking place at the moment?

Outpatient appointments

There have been some changes to outpatient appointments. Some people will be asked to have their appointment over the phone or by online video consultation. Other patients will find their appointment has been rearranged.

Patients who need to have their appointments face-to-face will usually be asked not to bring a friend or relative with them, unless completely necessary. If you have a health condition that means you need to have a carer with you, you should get in touch with the hospital before your appointment to discuss your visit.

You'll still need to socially distance and wear a face mask when you attend appointments, unless you have a medical reason which prevents you from doing so. 

Cancer treatment and clinically urgent care

Cancer treatment and clinically urgent care are still being treated as a priority, but your treatment plan might be reviewed. Your clinical team will talk to you and answer questions you may have about any changes to your treatment or appointments.

Processes are in place to ensure that cancer treatment can go ahead safely. This means that the way you receive cancer treatment may be a bit different. In some areas of the country, cancer hubs have been set up to ensure that people with cancer can continue to be treated safely. These are special centres which can only be used by people with cancer. You may also be asked to receive your treatment in a different hospital to the one you're used to.

Anyone who's worried they have signs or symptoms of cancer should contact their GP as soon as possible. Don't put off getting help – the earlier cancer is detected the better. 

Cancer Research and Macmillan have specific guidance on coronavirus for cancer patients. 

Cancer Research's coronavirus information

Macmillan's coronavirus information

Surgery and procedures

If you're having surgery or a procedure there are things you might need to do:

  • You, the people you live with, and anyone in your support bubble may need to self-isolate before you go into hospital.
  • You may need a coronavirus test before you go into hospital. 

These measures are to help stop the spread of the virus. Your clinician will advise you on what steps you need to take.  

If you have symptoms before an appointment

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, or a member of your household does, you must let your doctor or clinician know before attending your appointment. You must also let your doctor or clinician know if you've been advised to self-isolate by the test and trace service, or by the NHS Covid-19 app.

In most cases, your appointment will be rearranged – however, some people who are receiving life-saving treatment will be asked to still attend. If this is the case, your clinician will put in place extra precautions to keep you and others safe.

If you are clinically extremely vulnerable and need ongoing treatment or care

If you have health conditions that make you extremely vulnerable to coronavirus and were previously advised to shield, then you should contact your GP or specialist for advice on how to continue receiving your care and treatment.


What happens when I come out of hospital?

If you’re currently in hospital or are admitted as a result of coronavirus, there are a few things it's worth knowing about how the discharge process will work during the outbreak:

  1. You and your family should have the current discharge process clearly explained to you as you're admitted to hospital. You should also be given a leaflet explaining this process.
  2. You'll be reviewed regularly during your time in hospital and once it's agreed you no longer need to be in hospital, you will likely be discharged the same day. 
  3. Once moved to the next agreed and suitable location – that may be back at home, into a community hospital or into a care home – there will be a more detailed assessment of your recovery and further support needs.
  4. If you need more care on discharge than when you came into hospital, this additional care will be provided free of charge for up to six weeks to support your recovery. After this time, you may be asked to contribute towards the cost of your care and the person co-ordinating your care should explain how this is decided.

Hospital staff should arrange a coronavirus test for people being discharged to a care home, supported housing or other temporary accommodation.


Can I visit someone in hospital?

Hospitals will try to accommodate visiting where possible but will make decisions based on the threat of the virus and the best way to keep everyone safe. Each hospital will have its own rules, so you should check the hospital website or ring the hospital for details.

You mustn't visit someone in hospital if:

  • You or anyone in your household is self-isolating because they have symptoms of coronavirus, or have received a positive coronavirus test result.
  • You have been advised by the Test and Trace service that you need to self-isolate. 
  • You're self-isolating after returning from abroad.

Some hospitals may not allow patients who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus to have visitors – for example, if they are recovering from surgery or intensive care.

When deciding whether to visit someone in hospital, you should also think about the risks to your own health. People who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to coronavirus or who are immuno-compromised will be at greater risk and may want to take extra precautions.

If you want to visit a friend or relative, you'll need to contact the ward they're on to check what arrangements they have in place. Most hospitals will require you to book a visiting slot and will let you know in advance how long you can visit for. In most cases, only one person will be allowed to visit at a time. If the patient has health or emotional needs that require a carer to help them, then the hospital will allow more regular visits.

If you’re able to visit, you'll be asked to take precautions:

  • You'll need to wash your hands when entering and leaving the hospital and not touch your face or eyes.
  • You must wear a face covering for the whole visit, including when entering and moving about the hospital, unless you have a medical reason which prevents you from doing so. If you've forgotten your mask, tell the hospital staff who should be able to provide one for you. If you're visiting a high-risk area or someone who is known or suspected to have coronavirus, you'll be given a surgical face mask to wear. In some cases, you may also need to wear PPE, such as gloves.
  • You should go straight to the ward you’re visiting and not visit other areas of the hospital. 
  • Try not to take too many possessions in with you.
  • You'll be asked to give your name and contact details when visiting as part of the NHS Test and Trace programme.
  • You might be asked to use lateral flow tests twice a week to test yourself for coronavirus and help stop the spread.

It can be very distressing to be unable to visit a loved one in hospital. Try to find different ways to stay in touch, such as over the phone or by video call. Some hospitals may allow you to deliver a phone if the person you want to visit does not have one. Or they may have tablets or other internet-connected devices so you can video call the person you want to visit. Even if your loved one is unable to communicate with you, they may find hearing your voice comforting. You could ask staff who are caring for your loved one to pass on messages, pictures, cards or laminated photos.

It can be especially upsetting if you're unable to visit someone you care about when they're in the last days or weeks of their life. Marie Curie offers advice and a dedicated helpline for anyone going through this difficult time.

What if I care for someone else?

If you care for someone, we have information about how you can support someone at home.


Can I get a dentist appointment?

If you do go to the dentist, there will be processes in place to keep you safe. You will be asked to wash your hands when you arrive and leave and there may be two-metre markers in place in areas like waiting rooms. Dentists will be wearing PPE to keep you safe and will be cleaning down equipment between patients. You'll be asked to wear a mask when you're moving about the practice.

Where possible, you should go into the dental practice by yourself, as this will help to limit the spread of infection. If you arrive early for your appointment, try to wait outside. Some practices may ask you to wait in your car and send you a text message when they are ready for you to come in.

If you need dental help or are due for a check-up, ring your practice to see what treatment is available and how they are managing patients with different requirements. Don't turn up at your dentist unless you have a booked appointment. If your practice can't offer the treatment you need, they can refer you to an urgent care centre and advise you on what to do. 

You should not go to the dentist if you or anyone in your household is self-isolating because of symptoms of coronavirus or a positive test. You should also not visit the dentist if you have been advised by the Test and Trace service that you need to self-isolate, or if you are self-isolating after returning from a trip abroad.

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Last updated: Jul 21 2021

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