'GPs should take the lead on population health'

GPs should seize the opportunities presented by NHS reforms to take a more proactive approach to prevention and population health, according to research.

Consultation: GPs can use NHS reforms to take lead on population health
Consultation: GPs can use NHS reforms to take lead on population health

A report by the Nuffield Trust on behalf of the National Association of Primary Care (NAPC), claims general practice has untapped potential to engage in improving the health and wellbeing of local populations, and that such an approach is essential for the NHS to meet the challenges of rising chronic illness at a time of austerity.

However, Nuffield Trust senior fellow and author of the report Ruth Thorlby, warned that reforms handing more control of public health to local authorities could distance GPs from efforts to improve the health of their communities.

The research analysed data collected from a notional general practice of 10,000 patients to identify possible actions, and interviewed GPs and practice managers working on new approaches to population health.

Ms Thorlby said she found enthusiasm in general practice for a proactive approach to population health. ‘What seems to be important is allowing local practices to define what this means for themselves, alongside identifying and supporting a cadre of GPs and other primary care staff to act as leaders,' she said.

But she warned financial pressures must not squeeze out investment in prevention. ‘In theory, NHS England and Monitor should enable flexibility in pricing and contractual systems, which could support innovation between general practice and other providers, and tilt the financial system away from the acute sector.

‘However, this means creating space for general practice to innovate as providers and not being inhibited by concerns about conflicts of interest.’

The report concludes that in order to realise the benefits of a primary care-led approach to population health, policy makers should consider certain challenges such as GPs not accepting population health as their responsibility, and the lack of resources training and skills.

NAPC vice-chairman Dr Nav Chana said: ‘This important report highlights the huge potential contribution primary care can make to delivering "state of the art" population-based healthcare. The practices participating in NAPC’s innovation network, on whom this report is based, have espoused the values of population healthcare, which underpin NAPC’s ambitions for the health service.’

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