Routine GP opening on Sundays provides little benefit, study shows

GP access on Sundays provides little benefit and Saturday appointments would meet the needs of most patients who cannot visit their practice during the week, researchers have found.

Just 2% of patients who report that their practice is not open at convenient times say Sunday opening rather than Saturday opening would make access to GPs easier, the study by University of East Anglia researchers found.

Three quarters of patients (76%) say weekend access to GPs would make it easier to attend primary care appointments according to the study, published in the BJGP.

But the study, which analysed data from the national GP patient survey, found that patients who wanted weekend access were more than twice as likely to prefer Saturday appointments (74%) compared with Sunday (36%).

The researchers said: 'It is likely that Saturday opening would meet the needs of patients who cannot meet their GP during the week because of employment, with Sunday opening providing little benefit.'

GP access fund

The findings come just a week after an official review of first-wave pilots set up under the prime minister's £150m GP access fund - formerly the Challenge Fund - found that demand for Sunday opening was 'very low'.

The government pledged to press ahead with plans to roll out seven-day routine GP services across England by 2020 despite low demand for Sunday visits in wave one pilots. The DH says that as Sunday appointments are promoted more heavily and patients become aware of availability, demand will increase.

GP leaders have urged the government to drop its 'obsession' with seven-day GP services.

RCGP chairwoman Dr Maureen Baker said: 'This adds even more weight to the argument against routine Sunday opening for GP practices. Not only will it be of little benefit to our patients - but they themselves do not want it.

'Our patients have better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than have their ears syringed.

Seven-day GP services

'We hope this research - hot on the heels of the independent evaluation of the first wave of the GP access fund, which found similar results - will quell the government’s obsession with seven-day working once and for all.'

GPC chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'These survey findings echo the results of NHS England's pilots for seven-day opening of GP surgeries, which showed extremely poor demand from patients for appointments on Sundays, and in many cases on Saturday afternoons.

'This has resulted in precious NHS resources being wasted on keeping near empty practices open and staffed, and has taken GPs away from caring for patients in greatest need. A number of those areas taking part decided to stop providing weekend sessions owing to lack of demand as the cost of providing care during these hours was significantly higher than routine GP practice appointments during the week.'

The University of East Anglia researchers pointed to earlier studies that warned routine GP services from 8am to 8pm seven days a week would require a 120% rise in the number of working hours delivered nationally by GP practices. Pointing to a decline in the share of funding for general practice since a decade ago, the researchers said that with the existing workforce facing rising demand, longer opening would require a drop in weekday opening hours.

A DH spokeswoman said the government remained committed to seven-day services, and cited support from GPs and patients in pilot areas.

She said: 'The public wants GP appointments seven days a week to suit their busy lives – and innovative GPs are already making this a reality. That demand is being met by nearly half a million evening and weekend appointments and patients say the service is invaluable. These pilots are also benefitting the rest of the NHS, reducing minor A&E visits by 15%.'

Photo: JH Lancy

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