In our 114th edition, Claire shares some flowers with us; Victoria is sceptical about the rollout of remote consultations, and Richard has similar feelings about locum banks; Rachel has advice about the coming winter and Liz debunks some myths about 'overtime'. Judith has some questions about masks, and Louise has an update on anaemia in pregnancy
Supporting sessional GPs to
improve patient care
image © Claire de Mortimer
The one-size-fits-all model ignores the complexity of working as a GP locum
NHS England must not force GPs into ‘banks’
Dr Isobel Heyworth
Under the cover of Covid-19, NHS England reveals plans that will enable local networks of practices to kettle GP locums into banks – creating substandard salaried posts that risk marginalising and exploiting an essential part of general practice
Covid-19 has seen many GP locums hard hit by loss of work. In May, Pulse wrote that some GP locums had even been forced to claim benefits. As I said at the time, GP locums felt ‘cast aside’.
Now NHS England has revealed that it is setting up ‘banks’ of GPs to work flexibly across local areas. In its newly-published ‘People’s Plan’, authors write:
NHS England and NHS Improvement will work with professional bodies to apply the same principles for flexible working in primary care, which is already more flexible than other parts of the NHS. Building on pilots, it will encourage GP practices and primary care networks to offer more flexible roles to salaried GPs and support the establishment of banks of GPs working flexibly in local systems.
Banks are essentially the zero hours contract of the NHS – expecting workers to take on all the risks associated with freelance work, with none of the benefits.
Bank working does not offer workers flexibility. Bank workers often turn to the system to cope with the fact that workers are not paid enough for the work they do, or where NHS schemes have failed to support a return to work (as seen in nursing).
It requires massive duplication of administrative effort at a time when the NHS is drowning in paperwork. It doesn’t give bank workers any benefits over what’s already available to them – for example bank workers are not employees and do not build up continuity of service benefits (sick leave or annual leave) between shifts.
GP locums work flexibly not just because they choose to, but because the NHS has a chronic workforce crisis that successive Governments have repeatedly failed to address in spite of clear evidence for its causes. Some GP locums are even survivors of that crisis who have continued to persist in their vocation despite experiencing burnout.
GP partnership can’t set rates under the Competition Act 1998, and furthermore CCGs can’t directly employ clinicians. So it’s hard to understand how a primary care network can propose to supply all its work through one agency using a fixed rate.
The proposal to set up a new bank also contradicts the NHS Long Term Plan, published last year, which aims to “improve the availability and deployment of the clinical workforce, further reducing bank and agency costs”. Starting new banks is unlikely to fulfill that promise.
The NASGP was founded 23 years ago in response to some of these problems, and this year our mission feels more vital than ever. We have a positive vision of flexible, highly engaged groups of flexible GPs working in symbiosis with practices to provide a flexible workforce buffer, providing not just medical labour but, by being specialists in working across different settings.
In particular, our ‘chambers’ model gives GPs a way to connect with colleagues to share CPD, skills and administrative support while retaining their independence. Unlike banks, the chambers model lets every GP locum foster their own relationships with local partnerships and practices. It gives them the freedom to work sustainably and flexibly while offering the support they need to stay up to date with best clinical practice in primary care.
We understand that GP locums are not a homogenous group – they may be at the start of their career or they may be scaling back, they might be relocating or going through a significant change in their circumstances. They may simply be disinterested in the management and politics of NHS primary care at present.
It is not only unfair and unethical to exploit and marginalise this group – it simply doesn’t make sense to do so. The GP workforce crisis leaves the NHS 5,000 GPs short and during Covid-19, managers and ministers unashamedly begged for trainees and retired doctors to step in to help them cope.
In two weeks, we’re relaunching our website to give members better access to our resources, as well as our booking system LocumDeck. We’ll keep reporting on the roll-out of the bank system, and campaigning on behalf of our members against changes that affect them.
Join the NASGP to learn more about banks, find a chambers, and support our campaign.
Dr Richard Fieldhouse
NASGP chairman and founder
"Banks are essentially the zero hours contract of the NHS – expecting workers to take on all the risks associated with freelance work, with none of the benefits"
"A study by Bristol University predicted that digital-first access could increase GP workload by as much as
31 per cent"
Are we confusing triage with consultations?
It will be a mistake to replace proper holistic consultations with a quick call
Dr Victoria Tzortziou Brown is a member of NASGP's working group on remote consulting and has summarised our concerns around the normalisation of remote consultations based on its rapid implementation during the current pandemic.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, GPs traditionally aimed to run 18 consultations of around 10 minutes each per session (Flaxman, BJGP). Decade-long campaigns by the BMA and RCGP to introduce 15-minute appointments or longer continue, but with limited success across the UK. A 10-minute time limit has been built into the Clinical Skills Assessment (CSA) and the newest Recorded Consultation Assessment (RCA) exam for the MRCGP, effectively making it a standard for general practice for all new GPs.
Yet, this length of UK GP consultations is amongst the shortest in Europe, according to a 2017 study which reviewed the data on consultation length from 178 relevant studies covering 67 countries and more than 28.5 million consultations. The study estimated that considering the rate of change, the consultation length in the UK would only reach 15 minutes in 2086.
The shift to remote consulting during the pandemic may have resulted in even shorter consultation times. This is due to a widely held assumption that remote consulting is quicker. However this assumption is not substantiated by evidence and a 2018 study in the BJGP found that most e-consultations required a GP follow-up by telephone, or face-to-face, to gather enough information to inform clinical decision-making.
Data from the RCGP RSC Workload Observatory shows that GP activity was down by as much as 30% at the beginning of the pandemic, but this is now almost back to pre-Covid levels and is expected to rise further as people with unmet needs and delayed presentations start seeking medical help. In addition, a study by Bristol University predicted that digital-first access could increase GP workload by as much as 31%.
The assumption that remote consulting is quicker, and the increasing demand in general practice have resulted in sessional workloads of 30-40 patient contacts in some areas. This works out at as little as six minutes per consultation (including the time taken to get through, record the consultation and undertake any associated administrative workload). Although triage (ie a quick assessment of the presenting problem in order to decide the most appropriate consultation mode) can be undertaken in that time, a person-centred consultation (which according to the RCA standards should include an adequate and focussed history, encouraging the patients` contribution, exploring the psychosocial context, examining as necessary, explaining the management options, taking into account patient preferences and priorities, shared decision making and attending to risks and health promotion) cannot be safely conducted.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was estimated that face-to-face appointments were down at just 8% of total GP consultations. It is predicted that even after the pandemic, half of consultations will remain remote. Indeed, the Secretary of State is suggesting digital by default general practice. ‘Consultation length’ and ‘how well the patient knows the doctor’ have been shown to be credible and measurable proxies for holism which is one of the principal core values of general practice. Furthermore, earlier this year researchers found an association between shorter consultations and burnout. If the shift to remote working results in reduced consultation length, it may negatively impact both patient care and GP wellbeing.
It is imperative that triage and consultation are recognised as unique, and different, skills by partners and professional bodies. Coding standards should be developed to differentiate between the various types of interactions with patients. This will enable research and evaluation in order to better understand the cost-effectiveness, efficiency and safety of these new ways of working and their impact on workforce retention.
Dr Victoria Tzortziou Brown
We are now six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and have seen big changes to the provision of general practice in the UK. However, as we move towards the colder months of the year, it is important that locum GPs consider how best to prepare themselves.
Primary care has undergone significant change in response to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is testament to the professionalism of each and every member of the multidisciplinary practice team, that patients have continued to be treated safely during these past few months.
GPs are known for their resilience and adaptation to change, and this is equally true for locum GPs as for principal and salaried GPs. However, it is important to remain prepared for the workload and the changes that the next few months may bring and to take steps to maintain wellbeing and resilience.
Moving forwards into autumn and winter, there is little doubt that we will see an increase in Covid-19 cases. Whether this evolves into a second wave, with further subsequent lockdown measures, remains to be seen. Practices will be preparing for the inevitable increase in workload due to Covid-19 cases as well as other winter infections. They are likely to be approaching locum GPs to assist them with this, as well as providing cover if any of their GPs become unwell.
Many practices continue to triage all patients by telephone. Patients who can be treated by telephone or video consultation are done so, leaving face-to-face consultations for those that need to be seen in person or examined. Whilst telemedicine has assisted in keeping patients and staff safe these past few months, it is important to be aware of the medicolegal and other risks it presents.
One such risk could be that the patient and doctor have become used to telephone appointments. As a locum GP, you may be asked to review patients remotely. You should ensure that you have access to the patient’s full medical record, and it would be prudent to consider the last time the patient was seen in person for that condition. Locum GPs are often a “fresh pair of eyes” and can view patients objectively - is it safe for them to continue being treated remotely? Do they need a blood test or blood pressure check to monitor their condition? Does the provisional diagnosis need to be revisited?
The Royal College of General Practitioners has produced extensive guidance and flowcharts relating to remote consulting in a variety of situations and you may wish to familiarise yourself with these helpful resources.
Mental health problems may be particularly challenging to treat remotely. With a large percentage of communication being non-verbal, how can you ensure you pick up on important cues, such as lack of eye contact, flat affect or restlessness? The Royal College of Psychiatrists has guidance specifically regarding the assessment of mental health remotely.
The distinction between febrile childhood illnesses and Covid-19 may present a particular clinical challenge and you should keep up to date with Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health guidance as well as that of your local hospital’s paediatric department.
During remote consultations, patients may offer to send photographs, for example of rashes or skin lesions. You should ensure that the quality of any images is sufficient if you are relying on them for diagnosis and all emails, text messages and images should be stored securely within the patient’s medical record.
Keeping up to date
You should ensure that you are familiar with local protocols for patients with symptoms of Covid-19, including arranging for their assessment at local GP-led “hot sites” or “red zones”. If you have not worked in a particular area for a few weeks, do not assume that guidance remains the same. Ask the practice in advance to provide you with any necessary updated protocols and procedures.
As a locum GP, you may be asked to work in a variety of other clinical settings, such as remote assessment centres or face-to-face assessment centres. It is important to be aware of your own health and ensure that there will be adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) available for you.
Locum GPs may also be asked to assist with flu vaccination clinics, although many practices will still be considering the safest way to undertake these, whilst maintaining social distancing.
Guidance has been fast-changing during the last few months and is likely to continue to be updated. There are many resources available online for education - including webinars, podcasts, articles and guidance. The RCGP has a Covid-19 specific resource hub which addresses clinical management for a range of conditions as well as advice on maintaining an effective general practice service. Medical Protection also has a selection of webinars and podcasts providing Covid-19-related medicolegal advice.
It is possible that helpful lessons will emerge from the Southern hemisphere as they are currently going through their own winters.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many doctors felt resilient and able to cope with the changes to their working practice and the accompanying extra workload. It is often easier to cope in the acute setting, but when a situation becomes more chronic, with the continuing threat and uncertainty of Covid-19 looming, it is important to ensure that you continue to look after your own wellbeing.
Many locum GPs will have had children to look after whilst schools and childcare facilities have been closed, and others may have elderly relatives or family members with medical conditions that put them at extra risk of Covid-19. Difficult decisions have had to be made, in some circumstances, on whether to work, or how to work whilst safely protecting loved ones. Some locum GPs may have had to make difficult financial decisions. In some areas there may have been reduced demand for locum GPs, whilst in others the converse may have been true.
Furthermore, the nature of GP work when assessing patients with potential Covid-19, having to assess patients, make clinical decisions and discuss end of life care, often over the telephone, can take its toll on the mental health of GPs. It is important to ensure that you have good peer support, either within the practice or through locum chambers or sessional GP groups. Your medical defence organisation may also be able to help. Medical Protection has extended its confidential counselling service for members experiencing work-related stress, which is provided through ICAS, a third-party partner.
Remember that you are a patient too and, if you feel that either your physical or mental health is suffering, do not hesitate to contact your own GP. The BMA wellbeing support service also offers counselling to any doctors or medical students and is available 24/7.
As always, prevention is better than cure, and it would be wise to maintain an awareness of your own health. Although you may be tempted to work 10 sessions a week, if asked, try to factor in a rest session weekly. Make sure that you take sufficient time off, and even though you may not be able to go away on holiday consider how you can spend the time with family and friends. Now more than ever, you need time to rest and recuperate.
By Rachel Birch @MPSdoctors
"There is little doubt that we will see an increase in Covid-19 cases in autumn and winter"
Preparing for a
Dr Rachel Birch, medicolegal consultant at mps, provides advice and practical tips for locum GPs.
Beware of unforeseen financial impact on NHS pension, national insurance and tax
"If tax is saved within the practice for the full personal tax liability, do not draw the full amount earned – you will have to pay it back in at the end of the year"
By Liz Densley @honey_barrett
We often come across salaried doctors and partners who work additional hours at their own practices and want to treat them as locum income – either as self-employment or through a company. Specialist medical accountant Liz Densley looks at the options.
Partner doing additional sessions
This will not be a separate self-employment – it will be an increase in partnership share. So, for tax and NIC purposes it will have exactly the same effect as earning more profit – because a partnership share is effectively taxed in the same way as a self-employment. The practice accounts will need to show a ‘pre-share’ or ‘prior share’ of profits credited to the doctor who has done the additional work – and this will then reduce the pool of profits available to the rest of the partners (so exactly the same situation for them as if they had paid an external locum).
Contrast this to pensionable out-of-hours sessions done outside the practice. This is not (normally) part of the practice’s business, so it is perfectly acceptable for this to be treated as a self-employment – in which case it will be pensioned under the GP SOLO regime. Equally it is perfectly acceptable to put it through the practice accounts and treat it as a prior share of profits. It will come out to the same overall.
From a practice point of view and nothing to do with tax or pensions, the main benefit of the Partnership Agreement insisting on putting out-of-hours and any other outside work through the practice is to have some sort of control over the level of stress that a partner is putting themselves under. That will open a conversation if the other partners feel someone is unable to perform their partner duties efficiently because they are too exhausted from outside work. It can also stop partners ‘cherry-picking’ lucrative outside appointments to the detriment of the practice.
If tax is saved within the practice for the full personal tax liability, do not draw the full amount earned or you will have to pay the tax back in at the end of the year.
For NHS pensions purposes, partners are explicitly forbidden from using Locum A/B forms to pension their extra internal locum hours. The income will be pensioned within the total practice income via the annual Pension certificate. Remember that if you draw the full amount of the fee, you will potentially need to pay the pension element back to the practice as they will have to pay over the pension contributions on it.
Some partners want to put extra sessions through a limited company. Where this is part of the normal work – just extra hours, it would be difficult to argue that the company is properly contracting for the work. There is some justification if it is to provide a separate service that isn’t provided within the practice – running a travel clinic for example (although not a good example in the current climate). Anything put through a company of course is not pensionable in the NHS scheme.
Salaried doctors doing additional sessions
If a salaried doctor does additional work for their practice it would be very hard to argue from an HMRC point of view that it is not overtime. To treat it as self-employed would put the practice at risk of breaching PAYE rules and could give rise to penalties.
There could very occasionally be work done that is not the same as the usual job, where the practice doesn’t exercise any control over the work, that might be arguable that it is a separate self-employment, but it’s probably normally not worth the cost of an argument with HMRC.
For pension purposes if the extra time takes you over full-time hours, the excess won’t be pensionable – otherwise, if you’re in the scheme, it will be. So most commonly, tax, national insurance and pension will all be deducted at source for a salaried doctor working locum sessions at their own practice. There is theoretical scope within the pension rules to pension this extra income as locum work – but you need to pass the self-employed tax rules first.
So far as a limited company is concerned, it would be really difficult to argue the IR35 (anti avoidance) legislation doesn’t apply – so the practice would need to make deductions as if you were an employee before paying invoices to your company – which would negate the benefit of using a company, not to mention increasing the professional fees for dealing with the company. You cannot pension any income paid to a limited company through the NHS pension scheme.
Only if you were doing something completely different and running it as a business providing that service to lots of different people might that work. If for example you did one session of business management and your company provided that service to lots of practices, and you were not in any way controlled by the practice, you might be able to argue it. But it’s not likely to happen in practice. Again, you couldn’t pension this income through the NHS scheme.
The tax/NIC consequences of using a limited company are beyond the scope of this brief article.
One extra situation:
Locum doing more sessions for a particular practice
If you start to do more and/or regular sessions for a practice, there will come a time when HMRC will not accept that you are freelance and will suggest that you are employed by the practice. This can happen when you are not standing in for a missing doctor, but are just an extra pair of hands, or where the practice names you on their website or practice publications as being part of the practice, or where patients start to treat you as ‘their’ doctor.
There used to be a pensions rule whereby you were deemed employed after a specific period, but this does not apply now. However, pensions will need to follow the tax treatment.
If you become employed ‘accidentally’ in the above situation, you would pay PAYE tax on the income and suffer NIC as an employee (with the practice paying employer’s contributions), so would likely end up with less after deductions than if you were still self employed on that source (but not always – as it would depend on your overall income position). From a pension point of view 100% would be pensionable rather than 90% as a locum.
In each of these cases, the risk of getting it wrong falls more on the practice than on the individual doing the work – and they are likely to want to protect themselves, so will err on the side of caution. That being said, ensure you understand your own position and how you are affected – and if you need help to do that, then contact a specialist accountant – it could save you time and money.
Liz Densley is medical specialist Director with Sussex Chartered Accountants, Honey Barrett and secretary of Aisma (the Association of Independent Specialist Medical Accountants). Contact her on 01424 730345 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Masks are uncomfortable, your glasses steam up, they muffle sounds and restrict facial expressions. It’s difficult to know if you are wearing them correctly. You can’t eat, drink or smoke wearing a mask. Or kiss.
Are they worth the hassle? When Covid-19 reached England, before there was any experience to go on, some doctors invoked the precautionary principle: faced with a serious harm, in the absence of evidence, it is advisable to take a possibly effective action with few downsides. Some sections of the population – people of my age, for instance – accepted the argument. But many didn’t.
If it could be proven that a mask protects the wearer, doubtless far more people would choose to wear a mask. Such evidence may be forthcoming, but meanwhile, it is worth bearing in mind that the idea that Real Britons Don’t Wear Masks doesn’t stand up to history. Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in underground stations didn’t see masks as demeaning; they all wore them to protect themselves from epidemic infection.
In 1940 you heard the bombs and saw the damage they did. Since then, social solidarity has given way to social media. Individualism reigns. It is easier to discount an unseen threat. You can see yourself as an exception – too young, too healthy, in the USA too Republican – to the generality of the population.
How sad that some people are prepared to abuse and assault others, even kill, for the ‘freedom’ not to wear a mask. Americans – young as well as old – evoke conspiracy theories or respiratory physiology (incorrect) or evidence (incorrect) and call on their federal constitution and their God-given right to breathe freely to justify refusing to wear a mask. Trump, god, snake oil will keep them safe.
Except they don’t. In Texas, a 30-year-old who had been to a 'corona-party' said before he died, “I thought it was a hoax. I was wrong”.
Now we know that asymptomatic people can transmit Covid-19, and people are going out more, so a measure which provides even a marginal barrier to transmission has to be worthwhile. And it’s good publicity: it’s a signal that you are aware there is a public danger. To some people’s surprise, yes, you do have to wear a mask even though you’re on holiday. Masks have been de rigeur for months in countries like Spain. Coming back home, holidaymakers discover that, finally, England’s government has caught on. Masks must now be worn in shops and public transport. But when those in authority have wasted months dithering, rubbishing masks and breaking their own rules, it’s a bit late to expect everyone to obey a law that is hard to enforce.
Engaging the public is an uphill task. At the Venice carnival a mask is alluring. For terrorists or bank robbers, masks are tools of the trade. If you are a shaman, a mask adds to your mystery. For super-heroes like the Lone Ranger or Spiderman, masks are an essential adjunct to their image. The Chinese wear them to keep warm. If you are a surgeon, cynics would say you wear a mask to stop your expletives or gold crowns falling into the patient’s wound. If you are in your local high street, a mask is just a nuisance. But with a decent public campaign, peer pressure and masks that are glamorous or fun, it can become taken for granted. Masks now feature on the fashion pages, and Nicola Sturgeon’s tartan version is already a must-have north of the border.
On our early morning walks in Regent’s Park, we are almost the only people without a dog, a Fitbit or ear buds. And two of the few with masks. But each day the mask count is increasing. Yesterday, out in Kilburn, not a hotbed of conformity, most people were wearing masks. Women wearing a niqab say they now feel much less conspicuous in public (though they still need a Covid-19 mask as an Islamic face covering is too flimsy to keep the virus contained).
Even if you and your society accept masks, the ethical dilemmas aren’t over. Is your mask effective? Was it made in a sweatshop? If not, can a poor person afford it? How can discarded masks be safely disposed of? And what about those for whom a mask makes verbal communication almost impossible?
Twelve million people, consciously or unconsciously, use lip-reading as an aid to understanding other people’s speech. The Government’s website includes among the exceptions to the legal requirement to wear a mask those who accompany people who rely on lipreading, and, anticipating that members of the public may challenge people who aren’t wearing masks, has produced an exemption card. This can be printed off or downloaded onto a smartphone from Action On Hearing Loss website.
It might seem that Deaf people who communicate by signing have an advantage. Possibly, although, as anyone who watches signing can see, as with spoken language a lot is communicated by facial expression.
Putting on PPE has revealed to many older doctors the uncomfortable reality of their own impaired hearing. Consultations between a GP and a patient, if both are in their 50s or 60s, and both are masked, is challenging. Video consultation has its limitations: even when the connection is good it blurs the subtleties of voice and body language, and the effort of trying to detect and fill in the gaps is tiring. But it is more satisfactory than struggling to communicate through masks, especially if, like most locums, you don’t know the patient.
Masks with clear panels aren’t the perfect solution, but at least lip-reading is possible. Thanks to small enterprises, such masks are now widely available (at a price) which makes interacting face to face less difficult. For people who find that wearing a hearing aid and spectacles leaves little room behind their ears for mask straps, adding fastenings which tie behind the head is a possibility. Or there are full face shields, though they are cumbersome and expensive.
Masks are going to be with us for a long time to come. We’d all better get used to them. Remember that it isn’t people with hearing loss who need a mask with a clear panel, it’s the people whose lips they are trying to read – and that could be any of us.
By Judith Harvey @judithharvey12
Learning to live
Something we're all going to have to
get used to
"Londoners sheltering from the Blitz didn’t see masks as demeaning; they wore them to protect themselves"
By Nigel Farrar www.legalandmedical.co.uk
Just when you thought your NHS pension scheme couldn’t get much more complicated there are now more pension decisions to make. The Government has confirmed that changes made to firefighters' pension in 2015 were age-discriminatory, and they will impact all public sector pensions.
We are now at the point where the government has announced a consultation paper on how they plan to deal with this fiasco. This will have considerable implications for members of the NHS Pensions scheme.
The pension changes are largely impacting those who were in the NHS pension before 31 March 2012 and were transferred on 1 April 2015 or thereafter.
Two possible paths
The consultation is looking at two possible paths. Either an immediate choice or a deferred choice that can be made at retirement, with both ultimately seeing you and your benefits return to the 1995/2008 scheme until 31 March 2022. However, it’s complicated.
So what will your deciding factors be?
As you will remember the 1995 and 2008 NHS pension schemes have different retirement ages (age 60 and 65 respectively) than the latest 2015 scheme (in line with state retirement), meaning you could potentially draw your scheme penalty-free earlier if you are a member of the 1995 or 2008 version. We have spoken to many medics who are changing their retirement plans due to Covid-19, so this could work in their favour.
The different pension schemes also have different accrual rates, meaning the rate at which you amass benefits differs between the schemes. So this is another factor that will need to be considered when making any decision.
The issue of tax and pension accrual will raise its head and has to be a consideration if you change the version of the NHS pension scheme you are a member of.
The introduction of limits on how much you can accrue in your pension each year and in the course of your life, (annual and lifetime allowances) has caused many to have unexpected tax liabilities. If we change the basis on which your pension is calculated, then it will have an impact on your overall tax position.
For some, it would potentially lead to having a liability if they change schemes, or possibly even a refund if it’s more favourable for others. The HMRC will only be able to go back four years, with liabilities before not being collectible.
Other points to think about...
Have you left the NHS pension scheme? Those who elected to leave the pension scheme may be impacted by this new development and it is unclear as to their position at this point. In our experience, this will particularly impact GPs.
Have you already retired? If you have already retired and are affected, you will be asked to make a decision soon after changes have been implemented.
It is likely that we will see more details after the consultation, and we will of course keep you up to date as the situation becomes clearer and guidance more certain.
In the meantime, if you are concerned or have any questions regarding your NHS pension, please do not hesitate to contact your Legal and Medical adviser.
The information contained in this article is does not constitute financial advice. This information is based on our current understanding of legislation. Legislation and tax treatment can change in the future.
Legal & Medical Investments Ltd is registered in England & Wales No. 3429678 Registered Office; Splatford Barton, Kennford, Exeter EX6 7XY Tel: 01392 832696. www.legalandmedical.co.uk
We are authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Entered on the Financial Services Register under reference 185193.
The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate offshore investments, tax advice, estate planning and some forms of mortgages. The tax reliefs referred to on our articles are those currently applying in the United Kingdom to UK Tax Residents. These tax reliefs are liable to change. The value of any tax relief available will depend upon the individual circumstances of the taxpayer.
"We have spoken to many medics who are changing their retirement plans due to Covid-19, so this could work in their favour"
How removing age discrimination in public sector pensions affects you
Pension consultation aims to
heat out firefighter fiasco
"Maternal anaemia may be linked with premature birth and low Apgar scores, and may be associated with impaired motor, cognitive and language development"
A lot of what we do is based on consensus, rather than on evidence
Iron deficiency in pregnancy
The most recent guideline from BSH on managing iron deficiency in pregnancy was published in October 2019, and there were quite a few points in here that I found interesting and was not aware of. It will certainly make me think a bit more carefully about those requests from the midwife to prescribe iron. I will list the things I learnt from this guideline then do a more general summary.
What did I learn from this guideline?
There is a lot of uncertainty about managing anaemia and iron deficiency in pregnancy. A lot of what we do is based on consensus, rather than on evidence.
Ferritin should be checked in women with a haemoglobinopathy before starting iron treatment to ensure that they do not become iron overloaded.
How should iron tablets be taken? To maximise absorption it should be taken on an empty stomach with either water or a juice containing vitamin C. It should not be taken with other medications, food or vitamins.
After starting iron tablets, recheck the haemoglobin (Hb) at 2-3w. This is to ensure the patient is responding. If they aren't, consider other causes of anaemia.
Aim to give the equivalent of 40 - 80mg of iron a day (see below). If the patient gets side-effects, give a lower dose, or try alternate day dosing. There is good evidence that lower doses and alternate day dosing is effective.
Some women are at higher risk of anaemia due to low pre-pregnancy iron stores (see below). These women should be screened for at booking. You can either start them on empirical iron, or check ferritin first.
What level of Hb is anaemia defined as in pregnancy?
Surprisingly there is a lot of debate about this in the haematology world. Current levels however are:
Hb < 110 g/l before 12w.
Hb < 105 g/l after 12w.
Hb < 100 g/l immediately post-partum.
What effect does anaemia have on mother and baby?
Maternal effects. Fatigue is the biggest symptom most mothers will get. Mothers report a worse quality of life and there is a potential link with post-partum depression. There is an increased risk of post-partum haemorrhage (the mechanism for this is not known). There is possibly an increased risk of post-partum sepsis.
Fetal effects. Maternal anaemia may be linked with premature birth and low Apgar scores. It may be associated with impaired motor, cognitive and language development in the neonate, though there is no consistent evidence for this.
What investigations should you do?
Hb - for most patients an FBC will be all that is needed.
MCV - this is raised by about 6 fl in pregnancy, so may be normal, even in anaemia.
Ferritin - there is no consensus on what constitutes normal in pregnancy. They advise using a cut-off of < 30 micrograms/l. Be aware that it may be raised because of the pro-inflammatory state in pregnancy. Most patients do not need ferritin checking, but the following women do (among others):
patients with a haemoglobinopathy before treating with iron (to avoid iron overload).
before iv iron.
if they have a high risk of bleeding in pregnancy or at birth.
if they would decline blood products (eg Jehovah's witnesses).
Transferrin saturation. This hasn't been widely used in pregnancy, so interpreting it could be difficult.
What oral iron preparations are there?
Ferrous fumarate - 210mg gives 65mg elemental iron content.
Ferrous gluconate - 300mg gives 35mg elemental iron content.
Ferrous sulphate (dried) - 200mg gives 65mg elemental iron content.
Ferrous feredetate - 190mg/5ml elixir gives 27.5mg/5ml elemental iron content.
What dose should we give and what advice on how to take it?
40 to 80 mg elemental iron content mane. Avoid enteric coated or sustained release preparations as they are not well absorbed.
It should be taken on an empty stomach with water or a drink rich in vitamin C. Other medications, food and vitamins should not be taken with it. Vitamin C increases iron absorption from the gut.
If the patient gets side-effects (nausea and epigastric discomfort are common), try a lower dose or alternate day dosing.
Why is this advice given?
Absorption of iron is greatest in the mornings. Taking it OD or on alternate days gives the best replacement. Giving it BD tends to cause more side-effects. Higher doses tend to increase side-effects, without giving better Hb levels. There is some evidence that alternate day dosing is preferable to daily dosing, but it was felt that daily dosing would lead to better compliance. It does mean that we can reassure women that can only tolerate it on alternate days, that it should still be effective.
Once a women has become anaemic in pregnancy, they are unlikely to be able to replenish their stores just through diet.
How should we manage a patient with a haemoglobinopathy or a suspected haemoglobinopathy?
For patients with a known haemoglobinopathy, check ferritin before starting iron, to avoid iron overload.
For patients with a suspected haemoglobinopathy, you can start iron whilst checking for the haemoglobinopathy.
Non-anaemic women who at risk of anaemia.
Some women may not be anaemic, but are iron depleted before pregnancy. They are therefore at higher risk of anaemia. These women should be screened for at booking. As there isn't any good evidence on how we should manage these patients, this guideline advises us to either check ferritin first, or just to start empirical iron. The following women are at higher risk of anaemia:
multiparity > 3.
twin or more pregnancies.
interpregnancy interval of < 12m.
vegetarian or vegan diets.
a recent history of clinically significant bleeding.
What advice should all pregnant ladies be given to avoid anaemia?
Women should be given the following advice at booking:
Meat, cereals and legumes give a good source of iron.
Vitamin C enhances absorption of iron.
Tannins in tea and coffee reduce iron absorption if they are consumed with or shortly after a meal.
How should we follow patients up once they are started on iron?
We should check their FBC again at 2-3w.
Once their Hb is back in the normal range for pregnancy, they should continue the iron until at least 6w post-partum, or for at least 3m (whichever is later). It takes 3m to replenish your iron stores.
What should we do if their Hb level is not improving?
Check they are taking it correctly.
Consider other causes of anaemia (eg folate deficiency or malabsorption).
Who should be referred?
Severe anaemia (Hb < 70).
Associated with significant symptoms.
Advanced gestation (34w or more).
If Hb doesn't respond after 2-3w of taking iron correctly.
Are there any implications for birth?
If Hb < 100 g/l, women should deliver in an obstetric led unit.
How long should women take iron post-natally?
If Hb is < 100 g/l in the first 48 hrs post-delivery, they should be given iron for 3m.
Dr Louise Hudman
By Dr Louise Hudman
© Claire de Mortimer, GP locum, acrylic
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