GP practices need greater clarity about who can access the £240m of Government funding earmarked for moving from analogue to digital telephone systems, the Institute of General Practice Management (IGPM) has said.
In its response to NHS England’s access to primary care recovery plan, released last week, the IGPM has questioned how many practices will actually benefit from the £240m pot of money.
Although the plan announced that practices will be able to access an average of £60k to move to cloud-based telephony, the IGPM said it seemed to imply that only practices still on analogue systems were eligible for financial support. This means its members who have already migrated to digital systems that don’t meet the full functionality as required by NHS England (such as a call back feature) may not get any assistance, it warned.
GP practices are required to procure cloud-based telephony once their current telephone contracts expire, under changes made in the new GP contract for 2023/24.
A statement from the IGPM directors said: ‘£240m of funding for new technologies is mentioned [in the recovery plan] but with no detail on how we access this unless a practice is still on analogue phone lines. Our members tell us most of them are already digital – so how many practices is this going to help?’
If practices have to supplement the costs of new technology themselves it will add to pressures on funding, the IGPM added.
It said: ‘The issue of funding has not been addressed by this plan. The capacity and access money for practices [announced in the imposed GP contract for 2023/24] is simply rebadged IIF funding and will need to be spent supplementing the costs of new telephone systems (for those on cloud-based already but without the functionalities that NHS England want us to have) and new online consultation systems (some of which may be funded by ICBs but not necessarily all).’
The directors added that this extra expense is in addition to practices having to ‘keep on top of rising costs for everything else’ such as consumables, utilities, increased pension contributions, maintenance contracts equipment, and of course, staff pay.
The IGPM added that communication with the public is ‘vital’ if the recovery plan is to succeed.
NHS England plan has promised a national campaign to help increase understanding of the changes to primary care and what services the public can access. However, the IGPM said patients need to be ‘empowered’ and directed (in a positive way) to ‘help themselves where appropriate’, or use other services such as community pharmacy or walk-in urgent care centres in order for there to be ‘less reliance on the GP surgery for every problem.’
It called for there to be a change in the way general practice is portrayed in the media and urged for support from the government to make this happen.
‘Only recently, practices were criticised for not offering enough face-to-face appointments, and yet this plan places an emphasis on dealing with patient requests online or via the telephone. We would ask the government and NHS England to support practices to make the best decision about the type of consultation based upon their expert knowledge of the people, place, and available local services,’ the IGPM said.
Meanwhile, the IGPM directors also raised concerns about capacity and what practices should do if an appointment is needed by a patient but there aren’t any available.
They said: ‘The recovery plan states we are to divert patients to NHS 111 only in exceptional circumstances but leaves no definition of what “exceptional” means. There was previously a campaign to encourage patients to “111 First” for advice – has this been stood down?’
Earlier this week, BMA guidance suggested that ICBs should set up ‘escalation routes’ for GPs after 25 daily clinical contacts, with escalation plans to be agreed by practices.