THREE Towns residents have aired growing concerns over access to medical help as GP shortages continue to cripple local health services.

A Saltcoats surgery this week suspended its online consulting facility amid "extreme staffing pressures", with the strained practice stating that the eConsult option will be unavailable "for the foreseeable future".

A statement on the Saltcoats Group Practice website said: "This is due to an extreme shortage of GPs at the practice.

"At this time we would ask patients to only contact us if their problem is urgent.

"We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and we ask you to be patient and understanding with our staff during this time."

Resident Fiona Beardsworth told the Herald it is now "extremely difficult" to get an appointment at the practice.

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She said: "At least with the restricted time we had access to eConsult we could get a message to the surgery and they could give advice by email, or contact us to make an appointment.

"We could also order repeat prescriptions, but now have to phone and leave a voice message. Given the complicated names of medicines, I'd imagine many people will struggle.

"My husband works abroad and is unable to take his mobile phone with him when he is in some areas.

"He recently needed an appointment to discuss his medication. He eventually got through on the phone and was able to make a telephone appointment, but was told it could be any time on that day.

"If he is given a timeframe, for example, 9am to 9.30am, he could arrange to be in an area where he can use his mobile.

"I am sure he is not alone in this situation."

The online eConsult service has been suspended by Saltcoats Group Practice for the time being amid Street View

A previous update from the practice claimed that there had been an increasing number of instances where the reception team had been "verbally abused and mistreated".

The online statement added: "Our reception team work extremely hard under difficult circumstances and are doing their best.

"The practice is aware that it can be difficult to access services at this time and we are doing what we can with limited resources."

Another notice on the website also warns of reduced capacity due to "unforeseen staffing issues", and states that the practice is working with NHS Ayrshire and Arran to "try and source additional clinicians in the short term to avoid this significantly impacting on service delivery".

The Herald was unable to get through to the practice to seek further comment.

The practice did, however, confirm in its update to patients that self care advice would still be available and telephone triage would be continuing for all appointment requests.

Craig McArthur, East Ayrshire health and social care partnership director, said: "Saltcoats Medical Practice has unfortunately had to temporarily reduce services to patients due to staff shortages.

"This is due to unplanned emergency leave combined with difficulties in being able to recruit to vacant GP roles which is also being experienced across the country.

"The practice has consolidated all available staff to provide medical services to those who need it most during this time.

"We are sorry to hear about patient’s concerns and can understand their frustration.

"eConsult has temporarily been suspended for clinical requests, to ensure there is no delay for response times, but is still available for self-care advice. Patients who require to speak to the practice for urgent care should contact them by phone.

"The primary care team is working closely with the practice to help source clinicians to fill gaps and maintain continued delivery of services."

Last month, the health board urged people in Ayrshire to think twice about attending hospital emergency departments after bosses admitted they are facing "extreme pressures" amid mounting staff absences.

READ MORE: Health board under 'extreme pressure' as patients urged to consider A&E alternatives

Chief executive, Claire Burden, pledged that staff are "working tirelessly to try and improve the situation under challenging conditions".

She said: “Our urgent and unscheduled care services in both University Hospitals Ayr and Crosshouse are under extreme pressure at this time.

"This is due to a combination of staff absence across the whole health and care system, high occupancy levels in our hospitals, some waits for transfers of care into the community, including high volumes of frail and ill patients requiring complex care.

"We ask for your patience and support in these matters. We continue to triage patient presentations and will prioritise our patients based on clinical need."

People who may be seeking treatment at hospitals are now being asked to "consider all the alternatives".

Ms Burden said: “We are asking that members of our community do stop, think, and ask ‘Is it an emergency situation?’ If it is an emergency, come straight to the emergency department. If not, do consider all the alternatives.

“We want to do all we can to ensure our emergency departments are there for those who need it most – those with life-threatening emergencies and injuries.”

In a further update from the Saltcoats practice, advising that the Raise Street surgery will be closed on September 16 and 19, local pharmacies were said to have requested a minimum of 48 hours to turn prescriptions around after they are received from GPs.

A statement added: "We can no longer cope with the volume of patients expecting to have these redeemed while they wait.

"Patients should therefore order prescriptions five working days in advance."

Taking to social media, another local resident asked who or what was to blame for the current situation.

West Scotland Labour MSP Katy Clark said several constituents have contacted her about the issues in recent months.

She said: "I am very concerned at reports that people have been unable to access online GP appointments and I have had constituents getting in touch to share their experiences.

“The option of online services should be available across all practices, and my understanding is that currently only some within the Ayrshire and Arran health board [have them available].

“I recognise that this is ultimately a decision for individual practices, but it is vitally important people are not left waiting for appointments any longer than necessary and I will be raising the wider issue of shortages with the health board directly.

“Even prior to the pandemic, the NHS was overstretched and undervalued, with a shortage of GPs available. It is clear the Scottish Government must urgently come forward with a revised workforce plan.”