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Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis

Volume 754: debated on Monday 16 June 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that general practitioners are trained to recognise potential rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, and refer such patients immediately to rheumatologists.

My Lords, the Government’s mandate to Health Education England includes a commitment that it will ensure that general practitioner training produces GPs with the required competencies to practice in the NHS. The content and standard of medical training is the responsibility of the General Medical Council. The current GP curriculum requires trainees to successfully complete training on care of people with musculoskeletal problems, which includes rheumatoid arthritis.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his helpful Answer. However, the reality is that too many GPs do not recognise the symptoms. A new report published today by the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society shows that a shocking 25% of patients have to stop work within the first year of diagnosis, and with the delays their clinical outcomes are poorer and it costs the NHS much more. What will the Government do to raise awareness of symptoms, particularly among GPs?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, which is organising Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week this week, between 16 and 22 June. I am aware that Public Health England has run early diagnosis campaigns, which up to now have focused largely on cancer. However, I understand that a broader focus on earlier diagnosis is currently being considered. What might be done to tackle other conditions or symptoms has yet to be decided, but I will keep the noble Baroness informed of developments.

My Lords, one of the problems is that there are still far too many single-handed general practices, which have great difficulty providing a full range of services. Are the Government doing anything to try to bring them into bigger groupings?

My Lords, we are encouraging single-handed practices not to disband but to federate themselves—if that is a good word—with other practices in the area, and certainly to seek the support of their clinical commissioning group. That would ensure that the range of professional training available is utilised and that there is peer support where appropriate. Therefore, while many single-handed practices do a very fine job, there is scope for them to collaborate with their colleagues in the local area.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl will tell me that it is the responsibility of either NHS England or the local health commissions, but is he not alarmed by the number of GP practices being suggested for closure at the moment, and by the long waiting times that patients have to endure in many areas? In some country areas you cannot see your GP for four weeks. Should the Government not have at least some concerns on that?

My Lords, we are concerned by reports of patients having difficulty accessing their GPs. That is why a whole range of work is currently going on in NHS England to look at the issue, to see how general practices can be helped and to enable them to see more patients. However, more generally, we in the Government have amended the GP contract to free up GPs’ working time. We have abolished well over a third of the QOF indicators precisely to do that. The Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund—£50 million-worth of funding—enables GPs to open up different ways of working; for example, consulting patients on Skype and working hours other than nine to five.

My Lords, although it is very important for GPs and even patients to be aware of early symptoms, does the Minister acknowledge that the real answer as to how to deal with this condition will be in research? Can he tell us whether the Government are supporting such research?

I am grateful to my noble friend. Expenditure on musculoskeletal disease research by the National Institute for Health Research has increased from £15.5 million in 2009-10 to £23.1 million in 2012-13. The NIHR is investing over £21 million over five years in three biomedical research units in musculoskeletal disease. They are all carrying out vital research on rheumatoid arthritis. The NIHR is currently investing £2 million in a programme of research on treatment intensities and targets in rheumatoid arthritis therapy.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what impact the very worrying reported shortage in take-up of family doctor training places is likely to have on the ability of GPs to support patients with potential rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? A recent survey by Pulse found that only 7% of the funding for medical schools goes into teaching general practice. Does this not augur badly for the future of primary care?

My Lords, we of course recognise the very hard work that GPs do. Despite a decrease in headcount, there has in fact been a 1.2% increase in full-time GPs since 2012 and the number of practice nurses and practice staff has also grown. However, we also recognise that the workforce needs to grow to meet rising demand. That is why our mandate to Health Education England requires it to ensure that 50% of trainee doctors enter GP training programmes by 2016. Generally, we will work with NHS England to consider how to improve recruitment, retention and return to practice in primary and community care.

My Lords, is not the current model of general practice in this country bust? Is it not time that the Government started to think about setting out the requirements that all GPs who offer services to NHS patients ought to make available? If that means them working in bigger practices then so be it, because that is in the interest of patients.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that there is scope to examine different ways of working in primary care. I would have to think about whether I would go quite as far as he has, but the point of principle he makes is a very sound one. That is why the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund is encouraging GPs to think out of the box in the way they make themselves accessible to patients.