GP waiting times data to be published by NHS could become 'stick to beat practices'

GP leaders have warned against using practice waiting times data to measure practice performance after NHS England's chief executive set out plans to publish data that will be collected later this year.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens (Photo: Alex Deverill)
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens (Photo: Alex Deverill)

Giving evidence to MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee on Thursday, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said the health service would begin collecting data on 'availability of GP appointments for routine conditions'.

Mr Stevens also told MPs that the lack of clear data collected on GP workload had contributed to underfunding of the service over the past decade.

Asked by Labour MP Caroline Flint whether there was a case for making the data public, Mr Stevens said: 'Yes, absolutely. We want to have more information on availability of GP appointments for routine conditions.

'We are going to start collecting those data this year and then we want to publish those so people can see what those waiting times are.'

GP workload

He said the move would be 'good for patients, and GPs actually' because it would 'illustrate opportunities' to address variation and for practices to improve the way they work.

'This is in the context of a general practice system under pressure,' Mr Stevens told MPs. But he said that in return for increasing investment in the service, 'it is reasonable to expect on the back of that improved access alongside the extra GPs, pharmacists and practice nurses we are going to put in over the next several years'.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'GPs and our teams will today see more than 1.3m patients – we are working flat out, delivering the vast majority of NHS patient care, for a fraction of the overall budget. We want to do more for our patients, we want to offer more services that our patients will find useful and will be of benefit to their health, but with the intense resource and workforce pressures we are facing, this will simply not be possible.

'The college has not shied away from highlighting the issue of soaring waiting times for patients to see their GP – and we want to work with NHS England and others to improve the service for patients, right across the NHS.

GP performance

'Data can be a very useful tool in improving patient care – but data on waiting times should not be used as a measure of performance, as this will be affected by too many variables. Average waiting times will be influenced by population demographics and deprivation levels in an area, for example, as well as factors at a practice level, such as recruitment difficulties.

'It is essential that any data derived from general practice is used in a meaningful way to inform and improve the health service and the care that patients receive, and is not  simply used as a stick to beat hard working GPs and our teams with.'

The NHS England chief executive also told the committee that collecting more data on GP workload - including the contact time of GPs and other practice clinical staff with patients - was a key part of making the case for increased funding for the service.

'We are now introducing a workload tool that is going to measure what is happening in primary care,' he said.

'I would argue and I think some GPs would argue that one of the reasons that GP services have lost out compared with other parts of the NHS is that they haven’t had as much transparency on the work pressures that have been building in general practice for a decade, compared say with the number of extra patients hospitals are treating, and that has contributed to the fact that the rate of growth in GP funding has been about half that in hospital funding, until we took the decision to reverse that, which we are now doing.'

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