Call the GP and demand to see them face-to-face: Shake-up to slash phone appointments

14 October 2021, 00:01 | Updated: 14 October 2021, 00:16

The measures are to encourage GPs to move away from virtual appointments
The measures are to encourage GPs to move away from virtual appointments. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Patients will be able to demand face-to-face appointments from their GPs and practices will be named and shamed in league tables if they fail to provide them, under new Government plans.

GP surgeries that fail to provide an "appropriate" level of "access" will also be blocked from receiving new funding from the NHS, and will instead be offered support.

"Improving access to high quality general practice is essential for our patients and for the rest of the NHS too," said Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS in England.

"It is a personal priority and today NHS England is taking both urgent and longer term action to back GPs and their teams with additional investment and support."

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It is not clear what proportion of in-person appointments will be needed, but the NHS has said GP practices must "respect preferences for face-to-face care unless there are good clinical reasons to the contrary".

Under the blueprint for improving access, published by NHS England working with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), GPs will also be freed from red tape and other parts of the NHS will be used to alleviate pressure on GPs - for example, other healthcare workers will be given new powers to provide patients with fit to work notes or DVLA checks.

Patients will also be able to rate their GP practice's performance via text message.

GP appointment data for practices will be published by the spring, so people will be able to see how their surgery performs in comparison to others.

Under the plans, patients will also be able to see different types of clinicians in general practice including nurses, pharmacists and paramedics.

The measures also include a £250m winter access fund, which will fund locum doctors, allow other health professionals such as physiotherapists to support GPs, and upgrade GP telephone systems to cut down long wait times on the phone.

There is also a planned assessment of infection control which could lead to social distancing in practices being changed or downgraded.

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid thanked GPs for their "enormous efforts" during the coronavirus pandemic but said he was "determined" to make sure patients could see their doctors "in the way they want".

"Our new plan provides general practice teams with investment and targeted support," said Mr Javid.

"This will tackle underperformance, taking pressure off staff so they can spend more time with patients and increase the number of face-to-face appointments.

"Alongside this we are setting out more measures to tackle abuse and harassment so staff at GP surgeries who work so tirelessly to care for patients can do so without having to fear for their safety."

The plans, which will see the NHS "increase its oversight" of practices and "enhance transparency and accountability", have been criticised, with claims the "lack of action" will force many GPs to "hang up their stethoscopes".

British Medical Association GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: "It's truly frightening that we have a Government so ignorant to the needs of such a core part of the NHS.

"GPs want to improve the care we offer to our patients, but today's offer will not enable us to do that as we had hoped.

"GPs across England will be truly horrified that this is being presented as a lifeline to general practice, when in reality it could sink the ship all together.

"There can be no doubt that this lack of action at such a critical time will force many GPs to hang up their stethoscopes and leave the profession for the last time."

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Dr Vautrey added: "It is also disappointing to see that there is no end in sight to the preoccupation with face-to-face appointments; we need a more intelligent conversation about the variety of appointments and care that are available to patients to meet their needs."

In July last year, then health Secretary Matt Hancock said that all initial GP appointments "should be teleconsultations unless there's a compelling clinical reason not to".

And the NHS's Long Term Plan, published in 2019, put forward proposals for all patients to be given a "digital-first" option for accessing GP care, should they want it.

In September, leading GPs said that the current balance of in-person appointments was "about right".

But a new YouGov poll suggests that two-thirds of people would prefer a face-to-face appointment.

It comes after campaign group EveryDoctor, which represents 1,700 UK doctors, said that GPs have been "blamed" for the proportion of telephone consultations offered to patients when they had been instructed by the Government to offer initial consultations on the phone or online.

Dr Julia Grace Patterson, chief executive of EveryDoctor, told a briefing on Wednesday: "It's a bit of a shock for GPs to have been told vehemently by the Health Secretary last year that all appointments should be via telephone, and now we are told the absolute opposite and, in fact, blamed for the amount of telephone consultations that have been happening."

EveryDoctor also expressed concern that "inflammatory" rhetoric about access to GP services was leading to "abuse" of staff.

The new blueprint will include action on new efforts to tackle abuse of staff, and the NHS said it will work with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to develop a zero-tolerance campaign on abuse of NHS staff, including GP teams.