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Accessing health services

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

Other illnesses and treatments don't go away just because of coronavirus. For those that have existing conditions and need to access health services, or for those that 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?

You may feel like you should avoid getting help for medical conditions because you’re worried about putting the NHS under additional pressure or be worried about catching the virus by going to a doctor’s surgery or hospital.

But your health needs are just as important as before and you should seek the care and treatment that you need. The NHS has systems in place to ensure that care is still available for anyone who needs it and measures are in place to minimise the spread of the virus.

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.


Will my appointment or treatment be postponed again?

At the start of the pandemic, many older people had appointments, treatment, and operations postponed, and we know that some people are still waiting for these appointments to be rescheduled.

As we move into the second wave of the pandemic hospitals are trying to avoid delaying surgery and treatment again. However, in areas where cases of coronavirus and pressures on the NHS are high, they may start to postpone non-urgent treatment.

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, you are able to 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 the best treatment option.

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 be asked not to bring a friend or relative with them, unless completely necessary.

When you visit the hospital, you'll need to wear a face-covering that covers your nose and mouth, unless you have a medical reason which prevents you from doing so. 

Cancer treatment and clinically urgent care

Cancer treatment and clinically urgent care is 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 what you're used to.

Anyone who's worried they have signs or symptoms of cancer should contact their GP. Don't put off getting help as 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.

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 safe.

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

If you have health conditions which 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.


How will I get to my appointment?

Patient transport services are being used to transport people who have been discharged from hospital, which means they are under more pressure than usual.

To help ease this pressure, patients whose treatment is still going ahead are being asked to see if a friend, family, or household member can take them to their appointment. But they shouldn’t take you if they have symptoms of coronavirus or if you have symptoms.

Patient transport services are still available for certain patients, but the eligibility guidelines have changed. Priority is being given to:

  • patients who are classed as extremely vulnerable from coronavirus and who need to attend ongoing care appointments or treatment but have no access to private travel
  • patients suspected of having coronavirus who need to attend ongoing care appointments and have no access to private travel.
  • patients with life-sustaining care needs who need to attend a care setting, such as for dialysis, and have no access to private travel.

Patient transport services will be taking additional precautions, including extra cleaning of vehicles and proportionate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to make sure patients and staff can travel safely.

If you're unsure if you should still be attending your treatment, speak to your hospital clinician for advice.


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 on whether they can have visitors based on the threat of the virus and the best way to keep everyone safe.

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 must also not visit if you have been advised by the test and trace service that you need to self-isolate. 

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, relative or loved one you'll need to contact the ward they're on to check what arrangements they have in place.

In most cases patients will be allowed one person at their bedside. If somebody is there to provide support to the person in hospital, for example as a carer, they won't count as a visitor and one other person will also be allowed to be at the bedside.

If it's possible to socially distance while visiting, and there are special circumstances, then the ward may allow four people to be there. For example, this may be allowed when visiting somebody who is receiving end-of-life care.

If you’re able to visit, you'll need 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'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. 
  • If possible, you should travel to the hospital in a private car and avoid getting on public transport in order to reduce the number of people you come into contact with.
  • 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.

If you're not able to visit a loved one it is likely to be distressing. 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 is especially upsetting if you're unable to visit someone you care about when they are in the last days or weeks of their life. Marie Curie offer 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?

Dental practices in England started to reopen in early June. However, not all are yet able to provide their usual range of treatments.


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 may be asked to wear a mask or be given one on arrival for when you are 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 will 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 is not be able to offer the treatment you need, they can refer you to an urgent care centre and be able to advise you on what to do if this is the case. In order to prioritise patients with the greatest need the practice may not be offering routine treatment or check-ups at the moment.


You should not go to the dentist if you or anyone in your household is self-isolating because of symptoms of coronavirus or a confirmed 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.

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Last updated: Apr 15 2021

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