NHS England has launched an advertising campaign in the run-up to Christmas to ensure patients are aware that the appointments in the evenings and at weekends are available. It said that extended access across the country will provide an estimated 9m extra appointments in general practice a year.
GPonline reported earlier this year that NHS England narrowly missed its target of achieving nationwide coverage of access to extended hours appointments by 1 October.
NHS officials had originally aimed for every person in England to have access to evening and weekend appointments by 31 March 2019. However, the deadline was brought forward by six months earlier this year because the programme was ahead of schedule and NHS England felt the move would help the health service to better cope with winter pressures this year.
Under the extended hours access scheme, patients may not be offered appointments with their own named GP or practice, but will have access to a GP in their area outside core opening hours 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday - in addition to existing out-of-hours services.
NHS England director of primary care delivery Dominic Hardy said that full coverage of extended hours would help relieve pressure on general practice and A&E and meant the NHS was better prepared for winter.
‘Strengthening general practice is an important part of the NHS long-term plan and local health services have worked hard to ensure patients have access to our excellent general practice services right across the country,’ he said.
‘As well as offering convenience and choice to patients, it will help to reduce some of the pressure on general practice and A&Es and ease some of the wider system pressures we saw last winter.’
However, GP leaders have previously warned that extra appointments might simply drive up demand and said there was limited evidence that the move would reduce A&E attendance.
Speaking to GPonline in October, GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘These services often provide a wider opportunity for patients to make appointments rather than reducing overall demand and there is limited evidence that this will materially reduce the numbers of patients attending A&E.
'We have consistently argued that this important resource, both funding and workforce, would be more effectively used with a greater focus on core hours. This is when most patients want to be seen. More investment here would provide greater help in reducing the current workload burden on practices.'
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said it was important that patients were also encouraged to consider whether they really needed a GP appointment in the first instance.
‘GPs across the country are going above and beyond to ensure we can deliver good, safe care for our patients under intense resource and workforce pressures,’ she said.
‘We are preparing for a very busy winter in general practice. Our patients should always be able to access GP services if they become ill, either through our routine service, or the GP out-of-hours service - but we would also encourage patients to think about whether they really need to see a GP, or whether self-care or visiting a pharmacist are options in the first instance.’
NHS England said that in London, where full coverage of extended hours had been in place for 18 months, three-quarters of the available appointments were used.