GPs are 'overstretched', health secretary admits

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that GPs are overstretched, but said clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) can ease the strain by restructuring services and putting pressure on underperforming practices.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt: GPs are overstretched
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt: GPs are overstretched

In his first speech to primary care leaders, at the NHS Alliance conference in Bournemouth today, Mr Hunt said he did not underestimate the challenges ‘already overstretched’ GPs face.

He said that it would, in part, be down to CCGs to restructure services and reduce GP workload.

‘I don’t want to underestimate the fact that we need GPs, who will be at the heart of all the changes to the NHS, and they are very overstretched,' the health secretary said. 'I mention the number of GP appointments going up by 3.7% but the number of GPs hasn’t gone up by 3.7%.'

He added: ‘GPs will be part of the commissioning process. Things that GPs already know are wasteful and could create savings in the system - those are the things that will be possible for GPs to make happen. The result of that should be healthier patients. That is the thing we are all working towards.’

Mr Hunt added that by putting pressure on poor performing practices and reducing variability, CCGs would be able to reduce the current workload pressures on GPs. He said: ‘We have to be honest, there is a variability of performance among GPs and practices. The first thing [CCGs] will want to do is raise standards among their peers. That will be a way we will be able to reduce pressure in the system.’

Mr Hunt added that use of technology such as online appointments and repeat prescriptions, promoted by the NHS mandate, would also help reduce GP workload.

However, mirroring concerns previously raised by the GPC, he questioned whether email consultations would help, or in fact hinder GPs.

He said: ‘I don’t know the answer to whether being able to email your GP is going to save time or make work – I think we’ve got to do the work to understand the impact before we open the floodgates.’

Mr Hunt told CCGs leaders that they had ‘won’ an important battle to ensure commissioning decisions were made at a local level. ‘You won the argument for having an NHS which is driven by local decision-making and clinical leadership - those two critical things - and I think it’s vital that you did win that argument because as a result of that we will now be able to see at a local level the integration of services that has been the holy grail for so many people involved in services for so long.’

He added: ‘One of the most exciting things for me is talking to CCG leads around the country because the first thing they want to do is integrate services in a way that they as GPs have always wanted to do.’

Mr Hunt, who was elected as health secretary in September, admitted: ‘I didn’t have very long to think about whether I’d like to be health secretary.’

He said it was a realisation that politicians did not have a very long ‘shelf life’ in politics that led him to pick four priorities to focus on: dementia, improving survival rates for killer disease, technology and making sure that care was just as important as treatment in the NHS.

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