Even though you receive your HIV care from a specialist HIV clinic, it is still important to have a general practitioner (GP) or family doctor for health needs that aren't related to HIV. Many GPs also offer services which may not be available at your HIV clinic, but which you may need from time to time, such as health visiting for women who have recently had a baby; support if you need nursing at home; mental health nursing; physiotherapy and chiropody.
GPs are able to provide prescriptions for non-HIV medicines which your clinic may be unable to supply for more than a couple of weeks. Also, GPs are the only doctors who can make home visits if you are too ill to attend your HIV clinic or your GP's surgery. If you are unwell outside normal working hours, or at the weekend or bank holidays, all GPs have an emergency service through which a nurse or doctor will offer advice and, if necessary, visit you at home. If the problem is very serious and requires hospital care, they can arrange for your admission into hospital and will normally be willing to speak to the on-call HIV doctor at your clinic to arrange specialist HIV care if appropriate.
To get access to a GP you must be registered as their patient. You can only be registered with one GP and you must live within their catchment area - the area the GP works in. When you register with a GP you will be asked to give your name and address, your NHS number and details of your last GP. Don't worry if you can't find your NHS number, you can still register without it. A few weeks after you register with a GP you will receive a card confirming your registration, which will have your NHS number on it.
Most HIV clinics keep a list of GPs, and may be able to recommend a GP with experience of caring for people with HIV. However, GPs sometimes cannot accept any more patients, as they already have the maximum number of people they can offer services to. You could ask them to suggest another GP or you can look at your local NHS website or contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647 for details of GP practices in your area. If you still have problems finding a GP who is able to register you, then contact your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). GPs cannot refuse to register you because you have HIV or any other medical condition, or because of your race, colour or sexuality. But it’s also worth remembering that many GPs, particularly those with practices outside cities and big towns, may have a very limited knowledge of HIV and will have seen very few HIV-positive patients.
If you need a GP when you are away from home, then you can register as a ‘temporary resident' if you will be within their practice area for 14 days or less.
If you are entitled to free NHS treatment, then all NHS services provided by your GP will be free. GPs are not obliged to provide free NHS treatment to people who are visiting the UK from abroad or who do not have the legal right to stay in the UK. GPs also provide some other services for a fee, such as signing passport applications.
Most GPs have an appointment system, and sometimes it can be difficult to find an available appointment slot. Emergency appointments will usually be available for people who need to be seen quickly. These are normally available the same day, but on a ‘first come, first served' basis.
If you don't disclose your HIV status to your GP, then this may prevent you from receiving the best care. For example, if you are taking HIV drugs, it's important to consider potential interactions with other medications. Your GP medical records are confidential, and nobody can see them without your consent. If you are concerned about disclosing your status, explore whether staff at your HIV treatment centre, or an advocate, could help you assess your GP's practice around disclosure beforehand.
Your HIV clinic will recommend that you register with a GP. This isn't because they are trying to transfer your specialist HIV care to a GP to save money. Your GP will not take over your HIV treatment and care. But having a GP will mean that you can get routine health care that your HIV clinic can't provide.