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Digital phonelines to be in all practices by March

by Julie Griffiths
21 August 2023

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All GP practices in England are to move from analogue to digital telephony by March 2024, says the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in its latest update on the primary care access recovery plan.

But technology alone will not improve access to general practice, GP leaders have warned.

The DHSC said that over 1,000 practices have already signed up for digital phone upgrades. Practices on older systems will receive an average investment of £60,000 each to move onto digital phones combined with updated digital tools and support for the transition.

It is part of the £240million of funding for practices to embrace latest technology that was announced in May as part of the recovery plan.  

The plan pledged to support GP practices move analogue lines to digital phonelines, including call-back functionality, if they signed up by July this year. 

In March, NHS England said GP practices must procure cloud-based telephony once their current telephone contracts expire, under changes made to the GP contract.

The announcement from DHSC last week said: ‘It is expected every practice in the country will have the new system in place by the end of this financial year helping put an end to the 8am rush.’

But the BMA and the NHS Confederation warned that new digital phonelines would not help improve patient access without an increase in the number of GPs.

Deputy chair of the BMA’s GP Committee England Dr Samira Anane said demand in general practice ‘is still far outstripping supply’.

She said: ‘Unfortunately, installing a new telephone system isn’t going to change that. Ultimately, we still need staff to pick up the phone, make decisions about where best to triage the call, and if it’s to see a GP, then we need more of them to be able to see those patients.’

She added: ‘The Government needs to stop getting distracted and focus on the underlying issue of bolstering the workforce in general practice.’

Ruth Rankine, director of the primary care network at the NHS Confederation said ‘making it easier for patients to get access to primary care does not address the fundamental capacity challenges that remain from reducing numbers of GPs’.

She said: ‘Further financial investment is needed to both sustain core general practice, and at the same time build new models of care that meet changes in how patients are now accessing services and the working preferences of the future workforce.’

The DHSC said that, once installed, the new digital telephone system would mean patients no longer hear engaged tones when they contact their practice.

Instead, expert ‘care navigators’ will help assess, prioritise, and direct patients to other services where appropriate.

The government has already started training care navigators, with funding for 6,500 places –the equivalent of one member of staff per practice who can then pass on the training to colleagues.

NHS England’s primary care director Dr Amanda Doyle told our sister publication Pulse that almost 3,000 general practice staff had signed up to care navigation training in its first month. 

From the end of 2025, all analogue lines will be switched off across the UK, in a national transition by the telecoms industry to digital landlines.