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Practice managers: NHS’s telephony overhaul ‘will not make more appointments’

by Jess Hacker
14 October 2021

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NHS England’s plan to increase the number telephone lines per practice in a bid to improve access to general practice will not create more appointments for patients, the Institute of General Practice Management (IGPM) has said.

In a new £250m-backed plan for improving GP access for patients, NHS England today (14 October) said it will strive for ‘full adoption of cloud-based telephony across all practices’, supported by a rapid short-term solution – subject to value for money.

In addition to raising the number of inbound and outbound calls, the cloud-based features would display performance and patient demand data, NHSE suggested.

However, the IGPM argued: ‘A change in the telephone system will not mean there are more appointments. Being a number in a queue is no more satisfactory than hearing an engaged tone.’

It added that ‘practices do not have the staff or premises to increase the number of appointments offered’, requesting that money is directed to increase staffing and reducing bureaucracy.

Additionally, it questioned whether practices that have already improved their telephony will be reimbursed for their costs.

Incongruous with face-to-face plans

The Institute suggested the proposals for telephony stands at odds with NHSE’s broader focus on restoring face-to-face appointments.

‘It also seems incongruous that the plan involves increasing telephone lines to ease access, but the focus seems to be on increasing face-to-face capacity,’ it noted.

The commitment to improving phone lines has come alongside a series of measures designed to increase the number of in-person appointments.

These include the news that practices that do not reach pre-pandemic levels of face-to-face appointments by November will not receive any funding from the Winter Access Fund and will instead be offered ‘support to improve’.

There are also plans to take ‘immediate’ action against the 20% of practices with the lowest face-to-face appointment levels.

The IGPM described this as ‘arbitrary’ and a move that ‘will penalise practices for being in the “bottom 20%” when their access may be at an acceptable level’.

It pointed to the fact that the Government focused on remote and electronic consulting prior to the pandemic, making an e-Consultation platform available and part of the GP contract.

‘To then place such a heavy emphasis on face-to-face appointments is contradictory and will undo the enormous amount of work that has gone into establishing these systems,’ it said.

It also suggested that to change focus in such a way ‘because of media campaigns is simply not justified’.

Dr Dan Bunstone, PCN Clinical Director and Chief Medical Officer at Push Doctor, said that the expansion of cloud-based telephony would help give practice staff a clearer sense of patient demand.

‘But with demand skyrocketing and GPs stretched to breaking point, more technologically-advanced call management and telephone systems are only one part of the jigsaw puzzle – and one that fails to address the key issue of GP supply.

‘Alongside more GPs, what we need are solutions which will allow receptionists and call handlers to signpost patients to additional forms of care and the right medical support in the first instance to help them recover. Digital plays a vital role in this mix, adding additional capacity through video consultations with GPs, pharmacists, physiotherapists and other clinicians.’

Over recent months, GPs and practice teams have challenged suggestions that general practices were not providing face-to-face appointments.

In May, NHS England ordered GPs to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients, which the chair of the organisation GP Survival suggested appeared ‘to have been made as a result of a press campaign suggesting that surgeries are closed’.