Speaking exclusively to GP on the first official day of the election campaign, Mr Hunt said if he is still secretary of state for health after the 7 May poll there would be a transformation in GP services, with the shift to a more preventive health service.
Medical graduates and young doctors were looking more favourably on general practice as a career choice, said Mr Hunt, because of the government’s message about the changes it wants to see in the NHS.
‘I would say that if I am health secretary after the election, the biggest single change you'll see in the NHS over the next five years is a transformation in the services offered through GPs’, he said.
‘That is the big change we need to see. We need to move to a system that is about prevention not cure. And GPs are at the heart of that revolution.’
Need to deal with the workforce crisis
The secretary of state was speaking after the announcement by NHS England last week, of the successful bidders for £350m of government funding for GP schemes.
Over 1,000 practices across England were awarded up to £5m to improve premises in the first £250m tranche of a £1bn primary care infrastructure fund.
Thirty-seven new pilot schemes involving 1,417 practices, were awarded a share of £100m from wave 2 of the prime minister’s Challenge Fund for improving GP access.
Combined with the first wave of Challenge Fund pilots, 57 schemes are now in place, aiming to deliver increased GP access and improvements to out-of-hospital care to more than 18m patients.
If re-elected, the Conservatives have said, they would ensure every patient in England has eight until eight, and weekend GP access.
Mr Hunt told GP he recognised the need to deal with the workforce crisis as well as expanding access, which is why his party has promised to train another 5,000 GPs by the end of the next parliament. ‘We have 1,600 more full time GPs this parliament. But, actually we need a step-change from that’, he said.
‘In the end, this isn't about making GPs work longer hours. They already work very long hours. It is about improving capacity in the primary care sector. And that means more GPs, more practice nurses, more community nurses, more district nurses, as part of a revolution in the way we look after people outside of hospitals.’
Mr Hunt rejected the criticism from some GP leaders that the first wave of Challenge Fund schemes had merely moved doctors and staff away from existing out-of-hours and urgent care services into the new projects rather than expanding capacity.
The evidence, he said, is that in areas with Challenge Fund money 7.5 million people are for the first time able to make evening and weekend appointments to see a GP with access to their medical records.
The projects, he added, were a ‘tremendous success’ and both GPs and patients were enthusiastic about using new technology.
The ability for practices to link up access to patients’ medical records, said Mr Hunt, was an important step forward.
Mr Hunt defended opening practices for routine appointments on Sundays because there is patient demand. We now live in a 24/7 society, he said, and patients increasingly want 24/7 access to healthcare.
But, he added, the NHS would be flexible in how it responds to that demand, using different approaches in different areas.
On the new infrastructure funding, Mr Hunt said it was ‘fantastic’ that practices which were struggling to access capital funding because of austerity, could now fund some ‘very much needed schemes’.
While the first year of funding was targeted at ‘long over due’ premises schemes, subsequent funding will be used for projects which help to deliver the aims of NHS England’s Five Year Forward View: ‘more preventative work, particularly more proactive work for vulnerable older people to help keep them out of hospital. That kind of approach, which is very much the direction we need to go with the NHS.’