When you pack up for a posting, it’s not just friends you leave behind but other people in the community you have come to know and trust. Finding a new babysitter or hairdresser can wait; the priority for many Army families is to track down a new doctor and dentist. Jill Misson tells us more…
ALTHOUGH your soldier can see a GP at the nearest military medical centre, spouses and children in the UK often have to use local NHS services.
You can start your research online before moving, but you can’t register until you have a new home address and you can’t be registered with two GP practices at the same time.
Karen Ross, AFF’s Health Specialist, said: “We are looking at whether Army families could refer to a GP early, but the way funding works makes it unlikely.”
Your medical records should be transferred within a reasonable timeframe, although the process may not be as straightforward if you move from a Defence Primary Health Care (DPHC) medical centre to a civilian GP, as Army spouse Joanne Rush discovered: “My medical notes vanished. This worries me as we are due to move again and having had surgery for an ovarian tumour, I need further scans and operations.”
This is a fundamental problem, according to Dr Jonathan Leach, a Worcestershire GP who served in the Army for 25 years and now chairs the Armed Forces Clinical Reference Group. He said: “Most NHS GP surgeries use the same cloud-based computer system, so they can easily transfer your notes without delay.
“However, it isn’t possible to transfer notes electronically from a military medical centre into the NHS. We are trying to find new ways to improve the service.”
Dr Leach advised patients to take steps to help themselves: “Be pro-active by requesting a paper copy of your notes or ask for a summary print-out to give to your new GP.”
When Becky Renouf moved to Andover at 35 weeks pregnant, she had to accept the only local healthcare available.
She said: “There is a huge patient list at the GP practice, so the average wait for an appointment is three weeks. We were due a dental check-up, but had to wait five months. I feel like NHS providers couldn’t care less and don’t make any exceptions.”
In 2015 the NHS constitution was updated in line with the Armed Forces Covenant to include the core principle that serving personnel, veterans and their families are ‘not disadvantaged in accessing healthcare services in the area where they reside’. However, there is no entitlement to preferential treatment over the local population.
“Families can sometimes misinterpret the power of the Covenant,” said Karen Ross. “It is only a commitment, not legislation, and while it can be helpful it doesn’t really take into account constant moves or the variation in provision in different parts of the UK and in the devolved administrations.”
Frequent postings can be difficult for Army children with ongoing health needs.
Pippa Lehrle, who has two sons with autism, said: “We have asked to remain in our current location so that my boys can continue with their education set-up and medical assessments and my youngest doesn’t lose his psychiatrist.
“I fought tooth and nail and it’s a postcode lottery, so it would be soul-destroying to move.”
If a member of an Army family is on an NHS waiting list, the Covenant states that they should retain their place rather than going to the back of the queue when posted to a new area.
Hazel Dobson’s nine-year-old son needs surgery on his eyes. She said: “Rory was on a waiting list when we moved so I was keen to register him with a new GP to get his place transferred. I mentioned the Covenant, but the receptionist told me it only applies to soldiers not their children, which is wrong.”
An e-learning programme has been developed by NHS England with guidance from AFF to give healthcare professionals a better understanding of Service life.
In Northern Ireland there’s a stance of equal provision, so waiting list time accrued elsewhere is often not considered and some procedures are not provided on the NHS.
One Army spouse told AFF that her physical and mental health suffered because she could not have a particular operation and the only resolution was for the family to be posted back to England.
For soldiers posted outside of the UK there’s comprehensive information about healthcare available in each country, but AFF is working with the Army to make it more accessible to families. Children at boarding school should be registered with a local NHS GP and dentist, but can be temporary patients when going home for the holidays.
AFF’s Regional Manager Overseas Esther Thomas said: “The best advice is to carry a copy of your notes as not all systems are joined up, but medical and dental care – whether offered by DPHC direct or via Healix – is generally good and we receive relatively few complaints.”
Drusilla Gillen has been posted overseas for the last eight years. She said: “The healthcare differs dramatically from place to place. In Naples, the clinic was as good if not better than any NHS facility.
“In Penang we can visit a local GP and excellent hospitals, but everything must be cleared past Healix. The red tape can be frustrating, but I have never found them to be unhelpful or unfeeling. I now need treatment for osteoarthritis in my knees and have no choice but to return to the UK for the operation.”
If you experience difficulties accessing healthcare, raising your concerns with AFF could provide answers for you and benefit others, as Karen Ross explained: “Through the evidence we collect we can assess where there may be issues and speak to organisations to discuss how to resolve problems and improve services.”