Waiting times targets for GP appointments could 'distort clinical priorities'

Targets based on maximum waiting times for GP appointments are a poor measure of practice performance and could distort clinical priorities, a GP and former shadow health secretary has warned.

RCGP conference discussion (Photo: Pete Hill)
RCGP conference discussion (Photo: Pete Hill)

Speaking at the RCGP annual conference in Liverpool, former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris argued that average waiting times were a better measure than targets that push practices to deliver all appointments within a specific time limit.

Dr Harris told the conference that too strong a focus on waiting times for GP appointments could ‘distort clinical priorities’ - warning that politically-driven targets in the past had left doctors treating patients that they did not see as a priority before others in greater need.

His warning came after RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard warned that politically-driven access targets could set general practice back 20 years - following an announcement from the prime minister earlier this year that he had asked officials to draw up plans to 'drastically reduce' waits for GP visits.

GP waiting times

Dr Evans said: ‘I can understand that there’s a need to get maximum waiting times down, but that’s about resources. I’m not defending long waiting times generally, but the measure of performance should not be the maximum waiting time but the average waiting time, if anything.’

He said that in hospitals, patients 'coming up to the 12-month maximum wait' target in the past were treated as the most urgent case - irrespective of clinical need.

GP leaders have previously warned that underfunding of general practice is a key factor driving up waits for appointments. BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said earlier this year that the government needed to ‘recognise the underlying pressures behind long waits’ before it thought about implementing new targets.

The RCGP conference debate heard suggestions from GPs about how improving information to help patients decide when they genuinely needed to visit a GP could ease workload - and bring down waits.

Patient education

One GP said: ‘One of the issues is that patients are not getting to see the right person first. So they might have to go around all the professions until they get the problem sorted. We [need to help them to] make sure they are seen by the right person for their particular problem.

GPs stressed that empowering patients and giving them more information to make these decisions would be crucial.

GPonline revealed earlier this year that of the 307m GP appointments delivered over the past year by GPs in England, more than 211m - around seven in 10 - took place within a week.

But in around 17% of cases, patients wait more than two weeks for an appointment - reflecting rising pressure on general practice across England.

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