My blog piece on NHS Walk-In Centres has generated some interesting, if uninformed, comment so I’ll extend the article somewhat.
The idea of the Walk-In service is that patients can walk in from the street if they want medical advice, after treatment the patient walks out. The Walk-In Centre does not deal with A&E cases, though it is not unknown for ambulance crews to deliver patients to a Walk-In Centre where the condition is minor. The general rule is that if the patient has broken bones, needs a stretcher or has chest pains they get directed to A&E.
The WIC consultation is designed to be a one shot process. To assess and treat if appropriate; the WIC procedures are not designed for follow up sessions. If follow up is necessary the patient will be referred back to their own GP or to acute medical practitioners in an appropriate local hospital. The WIC may offer associated services such as a phlebotomy clinic (taking bloods), but not as part of their routine assessment process.
Mostly the cases for assessment and treatment are where the patient presents with headache, high temperature, colds and flu. They are cases that would otherwise clog the waiting areas of the local GP or A&E Department. The WIC normally has a qualified medical prescriber present during their open hours, the usual route for patients to obtain medicines is to visit a local pharmacy, but the WIC will also hold a stock of common medicines for on-site dispensing. When the WIC practitioner recognises a serious underlying condition the person will be referred back to their GP or in urgent cases on to the local A&E department. These referrals routinely represent a very small proportion of the cases handled.
The Walk-In Centre is normally led by a senior primary care nurse practitioner (Matron). The lead nurse will usually manage both nurses and administration staff. Where appropriate the lead nurse /Matron will also employ a part time salaried GP to handle cases that need the skills of a GP but patient cannot for some reason attend their own GP. Most primary care nurse practitioners (PCNP) are qualified to MA degree level in an appropriate medical discipline with additional training specifically to work as a Nurse Practitioner. They will usually have at least 10 years experience of actual practice in the primary care area. They are decidedly not “Practice Nurses.”
The nurses in the walk-in centre are trained in medical assessment. They are expected to take comprehensive notes recording how they reached a diagnosis in each case. Those records are personally signed as a legal record by the nurse. The WIC matron regularly audits the patient records for quality for the nurses and the salaried GPs. Nurses are provided with detailed written rules as to how to perform their work. They are not permitted to perform such work unsupervised until they’ve been given a written sign off of their competency. They are also encouraged to routinely consult with their seniors when they have any uncertainty. A recent study in the litigious USA showed that less than 2% of Nurse Practitioners were mentioned in medical claims. In the UK the training and supervision is more intensive.
The concept of the UK NHS Walk-In Centre was created in the late 1990s by the Labour Government. It was a time when the public in some locations found it notoriously difficult to obtain a consultation at their GP’s surgery. GP surgery hours were limited and normal working people would have to take time off work for a 3 minute consultation with their local doctor when they finally achieved the minor miracle of getting through to the GP receptionist phone. Most GPs are not directly employed by the NHS, they act as sole practitioners or partnerships that have few actual constraints on how they deal with patients or which actual hours they are available to patients. GPs will contract with a local primary care trust to provide services, but it remains the fact that GPs are their own bosses. The design of the Walk-In Centre service was to counteract that lack of service. WICs were specified to be open daily (364 days a year) from 0700 through to 2200 and thus not just constrained to working hours.In the past few years WICs close to acute hospitals have been performing an additional function in reducing the waiting queues at the A&E departments. A skilled nurse(s) from the WIC would be stationed in the local A&E department adjacent to the waiting area to perform first line triage of attending patients. Those with minor conditions are advised (not mandatory) to visit the near-by Walk-In Centre to receive quicker appropriate treatment