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Access to GPs

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

We know that general practices are still under significant pressure and demand for their services is high. We are investing at least £1.5 billion to create an additional 50 million appointments a year by 2024, and of course not all appointments are, or should be, with GPs.

Last week, hospital clinicians raised with me their serious concerns that they are seeing incoming case notes of vulnerable and frail patients marked with

“telephone consultation during covid-19 pandemic”,

but those consultations were just in the last few weeks. This is clearly unacceptable and is leaving many of my constituents with the very real possibility of either a missed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis. What action is the Secretary of State taking to guarantee face-to-face appointments that are easily available for the elderly and vulnerable patients who need them?

The number of face-to-face appointments is increasing and in May 2022, excluding covid-19 vaccines, 64% of appointments were face-to-face, up from 55%. But the hon. Lady is right to say that patients should have the choice, and that is why the NHS access improvement programme has been supporting practices experiencing greater access challenges. Indeed, one of the first visits I did in my new role was to a GP practice to look at the practical measures it was putting in place to facilitate greater access for its patients.

The inverse training law is depriving communities in Blackburn of access to primary care. Blackburn already has one of the lowest ratios of GPs to patients in the country, and it struggles to attract and retain GPs. The Government have committed to provide 6,000 new GPs by 2024, but according to the British Medical Association there are actually 1,737 fewer GPs as of this month. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to level up primary care and deliver the incentives for GPs to train and practise in communities such as Blackburn?

I know this is an issue of concern that the hon. Lady wrote to my predecessor about, and indeed she raised its impact on her constituency in the House last month. There are specific programmes such as the targeted enhanced recruitment scheme that was launched in 2016, and the one-off financial incentives to attract GPs to the more deprived areas. We are also looking at how we can have the right skills mix to boost not just the number of GPs but wider access to appointments.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. I offer a solution. Will he commit himself to sorting out the transfer of electronic prescriptions between hospital consultants and GPs, which would stop people trying to get appointments for prescriptions written in hospital. That would simplify things enormously, and my GPs would really welcome it. We could also do rural dispensing doctors while we are at it.

I always welcome solutions from colleagues on both sides of the House. From memory, Tim Ferris, who leads on tech within the NHS, is looking at a tech solution—I think it is in beta testing, although I would have to check. Appointments made shortly after a person has been discharged from hospital are often quite complex cases and create additional pressure on GPs.

Another issue I am keen to explore is GP appointments that can be done through either better use of technology or the wider skills mix so that we can better focus GPs’ time on more complex cases where their expertise delivers the best patient outcomes.

A much-needed new medical centre at Calne in my constituency was approved by the NHS in 2021, but there have since been a number of blockages to do with covid and the contractors. Will the Secretary of State look into those problems to find out what the blockages are—I think they are largely bureaucratic—and clear them out of the way to give the people of Calne their much-needed new medical centre?

I am very happy to look into that specific issue, which I know my hon. Friend has raised with the Department. I am happy to have further conversations with him.

The GP survey out last week shows that the proportion of people reporting their overall GP experience as very poor or fairly poor doubled between 2021 and 2022. Instead of picking a fight or blaming someone else, will the Secretary of State tell us what he will do to ensure that people in places like Wakefield can see their GP when they need to?

Far from blaming anyone else—notwithstanding the fact I have been in post for less than two weeks—I have set out a range of things we need to do, because this is a shared challenge that affects all our constituents, and it is within the context of increased demand. The May figures show a significant increase in appointments—1.31 million appointments per working day this year compared with 1.24 million last year. There is increasing demand, and we need to harness GP time, the skills mix and better use of technology.

We need more GPs and junior doctors in Worcestershire, and there is strong support from our local GPs, our acute trust and neighbouring trusts for the Three Counties Medical School in Worcester. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the case for providing funded places as swiftly as possible?

My hon. Friend will be aware that, through this Government’s funding, we have opened five new medical schools and, from memory, 1,500 additional undergraduate places. That is thanks to the work of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who championed this specific initiative to address workforce pressure.

More widely, I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to discuss issues in Worcester.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one way we can take some of the pressure off overstretched GP services is to ensure that pharmacists can continue to play their vital role in looking after the health and wellbeing of patients? Pharmacies across the country are closing because of financial pressures, so will he urgently look into extra support for them to recruit and retain staff?

The hon. Lady raises a valid and important point about getting the right service to patients, which can often best be delivered by a pharmacist. That is why, as I signalled earlier, we need better use of tech to support patients in understanding where they can best access the advice they need.

Access to GPs is a huge problem across my constituency of Burton and Uttoxeter, as it is in other constituencies. A walk-in centre in Burton would significantly ease some of the load on our GPs and hospital services. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this possibility?

I have had quite a few meeting requests this morning, and I am always keen to meet colleagues. My hon. Friend will be well aware that part of the reason for having integrated care boards within the place-based approach is that commissioners can determine the best mix of services in the locality, including in Burton.