The Future of Primary Care

Dr Jonathon Tomlinson | June 16, 2014 | Blog


The government has laid out its ‘Plans to Improve Primary Care‘, focusing on GPs. Few GPs will read this tediously repetitive, wordy document, full of un-evidenced assumptions that IT, home care and schemes to avoid hospital admissions will save money.

Gimmicks like a named GP for patients over the age of 75 reveal how little they understand which patients most need continuity of care and that the ‘Friends and Family test’ has not been shown to have any effect on quality. Labour’s response, a pledge that patients can book to see a GP within 48 hours is a political target that has nothing to do with clinical need and will be fiddled, fudged and ignored. Such gimmicks from both sides will not help patients and will only add to the frustrations and lack of trust towards government among the profession.

What could the future of General Practice look like, realistically – taking into account patient needs, increasing demand, and policy and financial pressures? What follows is a description of what is already possible. I am not aware of any practice that works exactly like this, but some practices are very close. You will see that one aspect is the way appointments are organised.

One GP surgery’s experience of changing its appointment system has been written up in a blog by GP Heather Wetherell. Evidence of confidence in this kind of system can be seen by commercial organisations like Doctor First and Patient Access that help GPs make the change.

Another aspect is patients’ access to their GP records. Amir Hannan, Brian Fisher and Patients Know Best have pioneered ways for patients to access their GP records. Many practices are incorporating these changes. They are being driven by GPs in response to patient needs, increasing demand and policy pressure.

The Future of Primary Care – a possible scenario

Five doctors, all GPs, and two nurse practitioners are sitting in a large room wearing headsets. They are separated by booths so that neighbouring conversations cannot be overheard by patients. Two of the GPs have a trainee listening-in through a second headset. It is a Monday morning and they are managing the demand from a practice with thirteen-thousand registered patients.

The calls come through to the receptionists who add them to a single list that appears on the screens in front of the GPs. Patients who are distressed or have serious symptoms like breathlessness or chest pain are highlighted. Patients who are unable to use a phone or cannot speak English still come in to the surgery. On a Monday morning they handle about 250 calls, see 40 patients face to face and do 3 visits. Other days tend to be much less busy. Occasionally a patient is put on hold and the doctor or nurse asks one or more of their colleagues in the room for advice.

The nature of a clinical encounter is far more suited to a phone-call than email because of the quite intense nature of listening, questioning, clarifying, mutual understanding and reassuring that goes on. In a consultation, narratives are explored and created. Email still accounts for a tiny proportion of interactions. On the policy advice of mostly young, fit men, there is a risk that the government will squander millions on secure on-line consultation technology that will lie largely unused. Such is the nature of healthcare schemes dreamed up by fit, young men.

Calls take anything from a minute or two to half an hour or more. The written documentation has to be thorough and records are audited regularly by listening to the calls that have been recorded and reading the notes. I’m found guilty of writing too little and it’s a useful bit of feedback. My practice improves.

Every few minutes one of the doctors or nurse practitioners gets up and goes into the waiting room to call a patient that they have invited to come in to the surgery. They lead them into one of five consulting rooms and are with them from two to 30 minutes depending on the patient’s needs. Average consultations are about 12 minutes, but the doctors and nurses have the advantage of knowing in advance why the patient is attending. The problem of patients failing to attend appointments has almost been eliminated.

Four or five times a day a doctor goes out to visit a patient at home. Around here where I work in Hackney, most doctors do their visits on bicycle or foot simply because it is the easiest way to get around. Dealing with demand by phone has reduced the need for visits, perhaps because patients are more confident of getting through to a doctor when they need to.

Every patient will be registered with their own doctor, and if they are on duty will be called by them. Both doctors and patients value continuity of care. Patients will often wait to call on a day when they know their own doctor will be on duty. If they cannot, and their problem is complex or longstanding, another doctor will ensure it’s safe to wait and arrange for the usual doctor to call back. Out of hours calls and A&E attendances have also significantly reduced.

The practice has invested several thousand pounds setting up the call center and telephone bills have increased significantly, but they have saved on space by reducing the number of consulting rooms, and are sending far fewer letters. In a few years they hope to recoup their costs.

The service runs from 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday with later evening booked appointments. Once access improved, demand for late appointments diminished and hours were cut to save money. GPs are usually working until 8 or 9pm to finish their admin. When the surgery is closed, local practices share the workload using a similar model working shifts with the local social enterprise which comprises 34 GP surgeries.

Patients can speak to a local GP at any time of day or night, but most prefer, and are encouraged, to speak to their own GP for reasons of continuity and safety. The ability to access every patient’s electronic record is still a pipe dream that extends back and forwards into the mists of time, littered by untold billions of wasted pounds. Fortunately most patients can access their own records and though many of the most vulnerable are unable or unwilling, it helps somewhat.

Doctors work shifts with protected time set aside for administrative tasks, teaching sessions and meetings. Their shifts are advertised so that their patients know when they are available. Patients are surprised to find out that each full-time GP is responsible for over 1500 patients, takes over 50 phone calls a day and spends over two hours a day on admin and up to six hours a week in meetings, teaching, etc. Every month the practice publishes data showing how many patients have been seen and how long they waited for their call to be answered and for the doctor to call them back. They also publish an anonymised summary of patient complaints and the actions they are taking in response. Complaints have reduced from several a week to a handful each month and patient satisfaction has increased from just over 70% to over 90%.

Planned care for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, contraception and antenatal care is still booked in advance with the practice nurses and midwives face-to-face. Patients needing blood tests, ECGs and breathing tests are seen by nursing assistants, some by appointment and some by a walk-in service. The nursing assistants are also trained as receptionists and when the phones are busiest, they work in reception. Patients are also offered minor surgery, physiotherapy, psychology and antenatal care. Patients from local GP surgeries who do not offer these tests because they lack the space or resources can come to a neighbouring surgery than has the facilities. A contract has been set up so that practices that are willing and able to offer services which others cannot, will be paid to do so. This way, patients do not have to go far for their tests and can stick with their local GP who they know. Local surgeries are supported and share resources and expertise. The contracts are repeatedly contested by private companies like Virgin and Serco, but thanks to campaigning by local patients we are able to keep the services in GP surgeries where patients actually want to go. The time and costs involved in tendering for the contracts is burdensome and takes clinicians and money away from patient care.

There are downsides

Making the changes is very stressful, as described by Dr Heather Wetherell. In many cases practices eventually change when present systems have become intolerable and those that are working in them are already stressed. The changes are designed to improve the experience for patients rather than those that are looking after them and for some doctors the added pressure of major change is too much.

Nevertheless, practice staff do feel satisfied knowing that they can help every patient that needs them, appointments are never wasted, complaints are down and patients are happier. Receptionists no longer have to tell patients they cannot see their doctor for two or three weeks. Doctors are working even later into the evenings than used to be the case in order to finish their administrative tasks and the pressure to answer a never-ending queue of calls is relentless. Finding suitably experienced nurse practitioners is extremely difficult and understaffing is a serious problem. It takes about six months for the new system to bed-in and inevitably, some patients are angry and confused to start with despite efforts to explain the changes.

If a doctor or receptionist is off because of sickness, pre-booked appointments rarely have to be cancelled as they are now, but the work has to be covered by the remaining staff and the time taken to return calls from patients increases significantly and everybody who can ends up staying late. Resentment towards those who cannot stay late has to be managed. It is very difficult for doctors to plan work after their shifts are supposed to finish. It doesn’t suit some patients who cannot use the telephone because of speech and language barriers, cost, etc. – some don’t have phones, and some don’t like using them. Allowances are made to ensure that these patients can book appointments directly and because of the flexible appointment system they can be seen on the day if necessary.

Final comment

With the exception of A&E, other parts of the NHS are being forced to restrict access to cope with serious and prolonged underfunding. A system of GP access that is demand-led means that GPs cannot restrict access and so will take the strain when other parts of the system do. A letter from senior NHS managers in the Guardian highlights the dire situation now. Of particular concern are changes to the GP contract that could see up to 100 GP practices, including ours, close. We are set to lose up to £200,000 a year, equivalent to 2.5 full-time GPs or 300 appointments a week. The alternative is that GPs put up barriers to protect themselves from demand they cannot possibly hope to meet.

This could be the future of primary care, but we do not have enough GPs to meet patient demand. The risk is that GPs will put up barriers to protect themselves from demand they cannot possibly hope to meet. It is vital that we remind those in power that ‘despite being an oft-repeated command to dying institutions, the ability to do more with less is an inherent impossibility’.

Further resources

About the author

Dr Jonathon Tomlinson

Dr Jonathon Tomlinson

Jonathon Tomlinson is a full-time GP in Hackney, east London. He is a GP trainer and undergraduate tutor with special interests in 'Poverty Medicine', shame, trauma and education. He was recently voted the 49th most influential GP in the country by Pulse magazine because of his blog.See all posts by Dr Jonathon Tomlinson