GP practices will be able to access an average of £60k to switch their telephony systems from analogue to digital, according to the new recovery plan unveiled by the Government this week.
The Delivery Plan for Recovering Access to Primary Care, hopes to tackle ‘the 8am rush’ and make it ‘easier and quicker’ for patients to get the help they need from primary care. It includes several measures on access, including updating GP telephone systems and expanding the role of pharmacists.
In order to be eligible for a share of the £240m funding, practices still using analogue systems need to sign up by 1 July 2023 with a commitment to moving to digital telephony with call back functionality.
Once they have signed up, NHS England will support practices with ‘procurement, contract negotiation and financial support for new equipment, transition costs and training’ over the next two years.
It comes after practices have been told they are required to procure cloud-based telephony once their current telephone contracts expire, under changes made in the GP contract for 2023/24.
The plan said the aim is for at least 1,000 practices to transition to digital telephony by the end of 2023, so that around 65% of practices will be using this technology. The rest are expected to make the switch by the end of March 2024.
The document said: ‘We want to see an end to people getting engaged tones when they call their practice, in part because the frustration of long waits on the phone without information can affect the caller’s interaction with reception staff when they do get through.
‘To manage this, we want all practices still on analogue lines to move to digital telephony that handles multiple calls and includes call-back functions so patients get a better experience, particularly for those calling on pay-as-you-go phone plans.’
Wider measures unveiled in the recovery plan include implementing a more ‘innovative’ approach to access – which the Department of Health and Social Care calls ‘Modern General Practice Access’. This is aimed at ensuring patients ‘know on the day how their request will be handled, based on clinical need and continues to respect their preference for a call, face-to-face appointment, or online message.’
In addition to the move to digital telephony, this model comprises two other elements: making online requests simpler; and offering faster navigation, assessment and responses for patients.
To support practices achieve this change, the Government said it will:
- Invest in care navigation training for up to 6,500 staff starting from May 2023 and ‘fund higher-quality digital tools’ to enable the shift to online. It will also make available a pot of £13,500 to practices that commit to making this change by March 2025. This is for ‘transition cover’ to help clear appointment books and could cover sessions from current practice staff or sessional GPs .
- Introduce training via a National General Practice Improvement Programme from May 2023. This will have three tiers of support to help practices with different needs (see box).
NHS England indicated that the £60k available to practices switching to digital telephony is money that is ‘in addition to training and transformation offers from NHS England’, and separate to funding related to the IIF and ARRS (£385m) also announced in the plan.
The three tiers of support in the National General Practice Improvement Programme
First tier – This is open to all practices. It will include building ‘communities of practice’, NHS England webinars on how to deliver key areas of the recovery plan, and sharing experiences of implementing change.
Second and third tiers – This is to address variation in the patient experience and aimed at practices in ‘the most challenging circumstances’ or that don’t feel they have the capacity to take on this new change. The support here is an adaptation of NHS England’s Accelerate programme, an initiative for practices struggling with access that began in December 2021.
As part of this, over the next two years, up to 1,500 practices (selected based on need and ICB nomination) will be offered six months of support.
An ‘intermediate’ option will provide three months of support to 800 practices and 160 PCNs.
Both options will include ‘hands-on’ support, a data diagnostic and a tailored analysis of demand and capacity.
Better public awareness of primary care
The Government’s plan has also promised a national campaign to increase public understanding of the changes to primary care, their benefits and what services they are able to access.
This pledge includes education on three elements:
- Building knowledge and confidence on digital access routes to primary care, including use of the NHS App
- Explaining the roles of the wider practice team, for example pharmacists
- Explaining why, when and how to access wider care such as self-care, community pharmacy, 111 and A&E.
Responding to the proposals, chair of the RCGP, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, said: ‘Investment into improved telephony systems in general practice with sufficient numbers of trained people to use them is one part of the jigsaw in improving access, and it is something the College has called for and welcomes.’
However, she added: ‘The public need to be aware of what’s achievable.
‘We need thousands more GPs, as we were promised at the last Election in 2019, so that we can look after the increasing numbers of patients who need our care – and we look to the long-awaited NHS workforce plan with anticipation, to see how this will be achieved.’
The National Association of Primary Care’s digital expert, GP Dr Pooja Sikka, said: ‘We are pleased to see digital technology and practical solutions such as cloud telephony being promoted as part of the primary care recovery plan. However, the transformation in primary care on the backdrop of workforce shortages and rising chronic and complex care needs, should go further.
‘Greater ring-fenced funding and incentives to scale technology in primary care are needed to support patients to self-manage chronic conditions, support clinical decision-making, provide better tools for an integrated workforce, and address the wider determinants of health – crucially going beyond just solving access alone, taking a population approach to implementing digital health solutions and diagnostics.’
In December, it was estimated that around 65% of practices still use old analogue telephone systems.