Practices to compete with new providers as NHS pledges 'digital consultations for all'

All patients will have access to digital GP consultations - either with their own practice or with a new 'digital provider' - within the next five years under a long-term plan for the health service, NHS England has confirmed.

Digital GP consultations pledged (Photo: iStock)
Digital GP consultations pledged (Photo: iStock)

The NHS long-term plan, published on Monday, will ‘use the latest technology, such as digital GP consultations for all those who want them', alongside a focus on preventive care to help save ‘up to half a million lives’ and stop an estimated 85,000 premature deaths each year.

According to the plan, described as a ‘blueprint to make the NHS fit for the future’, every patient will ‘have the right’ to online GP consultations by 2023/24. The document makes clear that this will be available 'usually from their own practice or, if they prefer, from one of the new digital GP providers'.

The service will be accessible through the NHS App, which will act as a ‘front door’ through which patients can access advice, check symptoms and be connected to healthcare professionals via telephone, video, or face-to-face consultations.

Digital services

The plan reads: ‘The NHS will deliver on this new commitment through three approaches. First, we will create a new framework for digital suppliers to offer their platforms to primary care networks on standard NHS terms.

‘Second, and in parallel, we will ensure that new "digital first" practices are safe and create benefit to the whole NHS. This means reviewing current out-of-area arrangements and adjusting the GP payment formulae to ensure fair funding without inequitably favouring one type of GP provider over another.

‘Third, we will review GP regulation and terms and conditions to better support the return to practice and increased participation rates by GPs wanting to work in this way.’

Announcing the plan earlier today, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said that patients would see these new options to see their GP online implemented ‘quite quickly’.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'The emphasis on widening choice for patients using digital means to consult with GPs is interesting and will be very attractive to some patient groups. However, the ‘three tests’ specified to ensure patient safety, NHS stability and fairness must be applied properly before new schemes are rolled out further.'

NHS long-term plan

It was also confirmed that the share of NHS funding for GPs, community care and mental health is set to rise under the plans.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul backed increased investment in general practice and community care under the long-term plan, but warned that more staff would be needed alongside new technology.

'Fundamental to the expansion of cutting-edge treatments and digital consultations is to first get the basics right, such as the workforce,' he said. 'There is no use in opening the digital front door to the health service if we don’t have the healthcare staff behind it.

‘The technological advancements announced by NHS England have the potential to benefit many patients in areas such as cancer, cardiovascular and stroke care but the aspirational targets must be matched by operational realities.'

Mr Stevens added that the plan ‘tackles head-on’ pressures faced by NHS staff and sets out a ‘practical, costed, phased route map for the NHS’s priorities for care quality and outcomes improvement for the decade ahead’.

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