GPs will make greater use of innovative technologies like Skype as part of a new plan set out by the Prime Minister to improve access to primary care services.
Patients will be able to see their GP seven days a week and out of office hours under the proposals covering a first wave of GP groups offering extended opening hours.
The move will make is easier for people to see their doctor from 8am-8pm during the week and at weekends, helping those who struggle to find appointments that fit in with their family and working life.
Under the scheme innovative practices will be able to apply for a share of a £50m Challenge Fund. Pioneers will be established in every region of the country – nine in total – which together will serve up to half a million patients.
This has the potential to be the most exciting development in primary care in the last decade
Ministers want to use the pilots as the first step to rolling the scheme out across the country and encouraging hundreds more GP practices to sign up.
As well as seven-day-a-week access and evening opening hours, these new pioneer GP groups will also test a variety of forward-thinking services to suit modern lifestyles, including greater use of Skype, email and phone consultations for those who would find it easier than visiting the surgery.
This first wave of pioneers will form part of a wider plan to strengthen out-of-hospital NHS care and make it easier for practices to join up with each other, as well as other services provided in the community.
Based on the success of the first wave, other groups will be encouraged and enabled to open their doors at the evenings and weekends.
The first wave will open during 2014/15, and include services such as:
- Access 8am-8pm and on Saturday and Sunday
- Flexible access including email, Skype and phone consultations for those who might prefer it to face-to-face, when it is safe to do so
- Electronic prescriptions and online booking of appointments
- Easier on-line registration and choice of practice
- Joining-up of urgent care and out-of-hours care to ensure rapid walk-in access to care
- Greater flexibility about how people access general practice, for instance with the option to visit a number of GP surgery sites in their area
- Better access to telecare to help sick people stay comfortable at home, as well as to healthy living apps
The aim is for as many people as possible to benefit from extended access, as rapidly as possible, with the pilots leading the way for others to follow.
Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: “Millions of people find it hard to get an appointment to see their GP at a time that fits in with their work and family life.
“We want to support GPs to modernise their services so they can see patients from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.
We also want greater flexibility so that people can speak to their family doctor on the phone, send them an email or even speak to them on Skype.
Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, added: “We live in a 24/7 society and we need GPs to find new ways of working so they can offer appointments at times that suit hard-working people.
“Cutting-edge GP practices in Manchester are leading the way and we want many more patients across the country to benefit.”
The move has been welcomed by Professor Steve Field, chief inspector for general practice. He said: “This move towards seven-day services is great news for patients and should be embraced by GPs. I want to see brilliant access to GP services for patients across the country, and will be assessing this in each practice I inspect.”
We live in a 24/7 society and we need GPs to find new ways of working so they can offer appointments at times that suit hard-working people
And Dr Charles Alessi, chairman of the National Association of Primary Care, added: “This has the potential to be the most exciting development in primary care in the last decade. It is an opportunity for doctors to be the good family doctors they want to be while working with everyone in the system to deliver better care for everyone, especially those most in need.
The extended hours approach is already being successfully piloted in six GP practices in Manchester, where groups of GPs are coming together to offer evening and weekend GP access as part of a six-month trial to crack down on needless A&E visits.
The Challenge Fund that will support the rollout to other pilot practices will be run as a competition, where the best practices will be encouraged to submit innovative applications. More detail on the process for selecting and supporting these sites and practices will be set out later in the year, with the first pioneers up and running from April 2014. Initial results will be reviewed at a high-level summit next summer to determine what has worked well for patients and how good practice can be shared across the rest of the country.
The announcement has also won the support of suppliers. Ian Jackson, managing director at telehealth specialist, Imerja, told BBH: “The recommendation that patients could be assessed via video link is a step in the right direction and provides an opportunity for the Government to utilise technology to help relieve the pressure on the NHS.
“A system involving telehealth would allow multiple hospitals to utilise the same consultants, regardless of where they were located. Improved communications and high-definition video conferencing solutions enable clinicians to accurately diagnose patients remotely and prescribe appropriate treatment, significantly reducing travel time while improving access to specialist care.