The Government has announced plans to enable patients to be able to contact their general practice more easily and quickly, and find out exactly how their request will be handled on the day they call. The announcement is part of a major multi-million pound 'overhaul of primary care'.
Practices across England will be given £240 million this year to embrace the latest technology, replacing old analogue phones with modern systems so patients do not get engaged tones, and easy-to-use online tools to ensure patients get the care they need as soon as possible.
This will mean that when patients contact their practice online or over the phone they will know on the day they make contact how their query will be managed, rather than being told to call back later. If their need is urgent, they will be assessed and given appointments on the same day. If it is not urgent, appointments should be offered within 2 weeks, or patients will be referred to NHS 111 or a local pharmacy.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, has also announced a major expansion of the role of receptionists to become expert ‘care navigators’, whose job will be to gather information, to make sure patients are directed to the most suitable healthcare professional and to simplify and streamline the process.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: "We are already making real progress with 10% more GP appointments happening every month compared to before the pandemic. I want to make sure people receive the right support when they contact their general practice and bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments. To do this we are improving technology and reducing bureaucracy, increasing staffing and changing the way primary care services are provided."
Minister for Health, Neil O’Brien, said: "Where GPs have already moved over to these new technologies we see they free up the phones, making it much easier for people to get through to their general practice team. As well as being more convenient for patients, these really easy to use digital tools allow a lot of patients to get the help they need without ever needing to go in for an appointment, which will help cut waiting lists. Investing £240 million in these modern tools and the help GPs need to move onto them will make things more convenient for patients, but also make the workload more manageable for general practice teams."
An average sized practice of 10,000 patients often receives more than 100 calls in the first hour every Monday. With advanced digital telephony, rather than an engaged tone, patients will receive a queue position, a call back option and their call can be directly routed to the right professional. The phone system will also be integrated with the clinical systems so practice staff can quickly identify patients and their information from phone numbers.
Practices that have invested in modern online booking and messaging systems find they help free up phones for those who prefer to call, while giving patients a convenient way to get the help they need.
As well as helping patients to make contact, the Government is supporting staff in dealing with the calls. Working with NHS England the Government will fund 6,500 care navigator training places – that is one member of staff per practice who can then pass on the training to colleagues. Care navigators will help assess, prioritise, respond and assist. They will help make sure those who want to see a named GP or preferred member of staff can do so while those who are happy to see a duty doctor can also do so.
Care navigators will direct patients to other professionals within the general practice or other medical professionals such as community pharmacists who can best meet the needs of the patients. Successful care navigation can help direct 40% of requests more effectively and speeds up appointments for those who need them.
The Government will provide primary care networks and GP practices with the funding and support required to make the changes, including through integrated care boards.
Responding to details of NHS England’s GP access recovery, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, Chair of the Royal College of GPs said: "GPs and our teams want to deliver safe, timely and appropriate care for our patients, and we get as frustrated as they do when they struggle to access our services. As such, whatever can be done to improve patients' access to our services should be explored.
“When patients are struggling to make appointments, it is not the fault of overstretched GP teams who are working flat-out in the most difficult of circumstances. GPs and our teams are delivering millions more appointments than before the pandemic, with almost half offered on the same day they are booked - but with 852 fewer GPs compared to 2019.
"The plan outlines some encouraging initiatives, many of which the College has called for: empowering patients to self-refer directly for some conditions, investment into telephony and training more care navigators, and further efforts to cut bureaucracy to allow GPs to spend more time with patients are all welcome.
“We’re also pleased to see there will be a consultation on how giving our pharmacist colleagues greater prescribing powers for minor illnesses could be implemented safely, and in a joined-up way. GPs work closely with pharmacists, often as part of the same practice team, and they already do important work, such as giving advice on minor ailments and undertaking medication reviews, that frees up GPs’ time for patients with complex needs.
"However, while all these initiatives are positive steps, none are the silver bullet that we desperately need to address the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and their teams are working under; we need thousands more GPs to be able to use these measures effectively to provide the services patients need.
“The public need to be aware of what’s achievable. Change is not going to happen overnight. Politicians think that promising faster access will improve services and win votes, but many practices are already struggling for lack of GPs and other clinical staff, particularly in communities with large numbers of patients with complex needs and disproportionate health inequalities. The only true solution is to increase numbers of fully-qualified, full-time equivalent GPs, both in the short and long terms by training and retaining them, and we look to the long-awaited NHS workforce plan with anticipation, to see how this will be achieved."