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Returning to pre-Covid level of face-to-face appointments not the solution to improving GP access, MPs told

by Beth Gault
16 November 2022

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Pre-pandemic face-to-face appointment levels should not be held as the standard for practices to aim for, MPs were told in a Health and Social Care Committee meeting yesterday.

Dr Paul Atkinson, chair of the health informatics group at RCGP, told the committee that aiming for 2017/18 numbers of in-person appointments would mean losing some of the benefits gained during the pandemic in terms of making consultations more convenient and efficient.

This wasn’t the ‘right answer’ for improving patient access to primary care, he said.

Dr Atkinson was responding to the question from MPs: do GPs feel they are losing anything due to practices moving towards digital and having less physical interaction with patients?

He said: ‘Some of what you see in the press about going to a pre-pandemic level is not necessarily the right answer.

‘Speaking very personally as a working-age man, using my annual leave to take a half day away from work to talk to my GP was not the way I wanted to use [it]. So, access to GPs by online consultation, by email, by telephone is better now. And I think that is something we should keep hold of.’

He added that the 2017/18 appointment statistics should not be held up as a high standard to attain to.

‘I think we’ll lose some of what we gained from the pandemic.’ 

However, Dr Atkinson also said that primary care ‘probably went too far’ down the remote consultation route during the height of the pandemic. But there were ‘good reasons’ for this, including anxiety from both patients and practice staff about contact with each other.

He added that currently patients who need to be seen face-to-face are able to do so, and often a preliminary remote consultation can save time.

‘Where I need to see them, we do a two-part consultation,’ said Dr Atkinson. ‘We do the first part by telephone, and I’ll say right I do need to examine you to see what we’re going to do about that. But that consultation can then be faster because we’ve done some of it upstream.’

The session, which was on digital transformation in the NHS, also heard that IT tools available in primary care should be more ‘intuitive’ so as to require less training by practice staff, and therefore save more time.

‘The need for a half day training or more on some of our applications is a failure,’ said Dr Atkinson.

‘What would be better is to have applications that were more mature, that had better user interfaces and that didn’t… require clinical staff to go sit in a classroom for three hours to learn how to use them.’

Dr Atkinson said within all this transformation, including the upcoming access to records changes, it was important to ensure each change could be personalised to patients.

‘We need to be respectful of patients’ choices,’ he said. 

He warned that when it comes to digital transformation, a broad-brush approach or universal polices could have ‘unintended consequences’ for some groups of patients.

Dr Atkinson’s comments come as practice level appointment data is due to be published next week in order to help patients ‘choose the right practice for them’.