Dr Maureen Baker: A seven-day NHS is a nice soundbite, but it already exists

It goes without saying that our patients deserve the same level of care whenever they are ill and the RCGP was at the forefront of media debate over the weekend around the feasibility of government plans for a seven day NHS.

One fact often neglected or ignored by the media and politicians is that patients who fall ill outside of normal working hours will always be able to see a GP if they need to – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – through our existing five-day service and their local GP out-of-hours service.

More than half of out-of-hours services in the UK are run or led by GPs, the rest are predominantly staffed by them. More than 80% of patients who have used them report being satisfied with the care they received.

But most people are not aware they exist: according to the latest independent GP patient survey, only 44% know how to access care out of hours.

Promote existing services

The government needs to concentrate on securing and promoting our existing services before even thinking about placing unrealistic demands on general practice that will simply add to our ever-increasing pressures and could ultimately drive GPs away from the profession and deter medical students from choosing general practice as their specialty.

This is especially pronounced given our latest college research that found one in 10 full-time equivalent GP posts in England are currently vacant.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of the House of Commons health select committee, agrees. She tweeted this week: ‘Given scale of workforce shortfall in primary care, 7day GP service as presented to public looks completely unrealistic to me I’m afraid’.

Dr Wollaston will be chairing the health committee’s inquiry into primary care and the government’s response to the challenges facing general practice.

The college has consulted with our members and submitted strong evidence to the inquiry. This inquiry is something that we have been calling for, and is a real opportunity to get the GP perspective across. We really hope that, particularly under Dr Wollaston’s leadership, it will be a force for good.

More GP consultations

GPs and our teams currently make 90% NHS patient contacts for just over 8% of the overall budget in England. We are making over a million consultations a day – 150,000 more than we were five years ago – but the GP workforce has remained relatively stagnant and, as our research on vacancies shows, the situation is increasingly concerning.

A seven-day NHS is a nice soundbite – a vote winner and an ideal – but it is something that already exists (just look at how many hardworking healthcare professionals got behind the #ImInWorkJeremy campaign a couple of months ago). Making GPs routinely open their practices 8am-8pm, seven days a week is not the best use of precious NHS funds.

It is bound to be a hot topic as we approach conference season. The RCGP will have a presence at both the Labour and Conservative party conferences, and we will be hosting fringe events asking ‘What will the NHS look like in five years time?’

Recruit, retain and return GPs

Our own annual primary care conference is in Glasgow from October 1-3 and the theme is Horizons of Care, looking at the importance of delivering care to our patients close to home in the community.

Of course, to continue to be able to do this, we need to ‘recruit, retain and return’ thousands more GPs over the next five years – and we expect a lot of discussion and debate about building the primary care workforce across the UK.

We have an excellent programme of speakers including director of human rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti; Scottish cabinet scretary for health, wellbeing and sport, Shona Robison; Professor Frede Olesen of Aarhus University in Denmark; Cancer Research UK chief executive Harpal Kumar, and professor of medicine in medical humanities at New York University, Samuel Shem.

Please join us if you can. For those who can’t make it, I’m pleased to say GPOnline will be returning as our official media partners, reporting from the event. You can also follow the action on Twitter using #RCGPAC.

  • Dr Baker is chair of the RCGP and a GP in Lincoln.

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