All GP surgeries in England will have digital phonelines installed by March next year, the Government has promised.
The announcement was widely welcomed as step forward to improving patient access, but the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) warned it would do nothing to solve a shortage of doctors at the other end of the phone lines.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said upgraded phone systems would "bring an end to the engaged tone" when patients tried to get through to their GP practice. The announcement forms part of the Government's plans to modernise and reform NHS primary care services and is backed by £240 million investment.
Practices on older systems would receive an average investment of £60,000 each to move onto digital phones, combined with updated digital tools and support for the transition. Ministers hope that every practice in the country would have a new system in place by the end of the current financial year.
The DHSC said that more than one thousand practices had signed up to make the switch from analogue systems — which can leave patients "on hold and struggling" to book an appointment — to "modern, easy-to-use" digital telephones.
England's Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, pledged that it would "bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments". The phonelines would also provide more options and help for those who preferred to ring their practice.
Care Navigation Vital
When contacting their GP practice, patients will be able to find out how their request will be handled on the day they call, rather than being told to call back later. If a patient's need is urgent, they would be assessed and given an appointment on the same day, the DHSC explained. If it was not urgent, appointments should be offered within 2 weeks, or patients would be referred to NHS 111 or to a local pharmacy.
To assist in this process, "care navigators" were being trained to help assess, prioritise, respond, and deal with calls, and ensure patients were directed to the healthcare professional who could best meet their needs, whether within the practice or in the community.
The Department highlighted that appropriate care navigation could help direct 40% of requests more effectively and speed up appointments for those who needed them. The Government was funding the equivalent of one member of staff per practice to be trained, who could then train colleagues, it said.
William Pett, head of policy at Healthwatch England, welcomed the investment. "GP access has long been the most common issue people talk to us about, with many patients facing long waits on hold and a frustrating process when trying to book appointments over the phone," he emphasised.
Little Benefit Without Enough GPs
Dr Kiren Collison, a GP and interim medical director for primary care at NHS England, acknowledged that GP teams were already treating "record numbers" of patients. She hoped that the new telephone systems would make it "as easy as possible" for patients to contact their practice.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the RCGP, also considered digital phonelines a "positive step". She said: "An updated digital telephony system will be an asset to many practices who are currently working with outdated analogue systems which are hindrance to both GPs, their reception staff, and patients. While this is an encouraging step forward, there is still a long way to go, and we must not be under any illusion that this will resolve the fundamental challenges facing general practice."
Professor Hawthorne stressed that the most pressing need was for more GPs. "New digital phonelines will be of little benefit to patients if there simply aren't enough fully qualified GPs on the end of the line to provide appointments," she said.