Tories to make GPs after hours care a priority

The Conservatives have pledged to make GPs responsible for round-the-clock care after the scandal of foreign locum doctors putting patients’ lives at risk.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, says he wants doctors to provide cover at night and weekends, or pay other GPs to provide reliable care. Performance targets which helped to boost the salaries of some GPs to more than £250,000 would also be renegotiated under a Tory government.

Under existing contracts agreed six years ago, GPs can opt out of providing after-hours services, shifting the responsibility to local primary care trusts (PCTs). One in three trusts struggles to find local GPs and flies in foreign doctors who are paid as much as £800 a shift to work unpopular hours.

Lansley confirmed a shake-up of contracts as an inquest last week examined the death of David Gray, a 70-year-old retired engineer from Cambridgeshire. He was killed by a massive overdose of diamorphine in February 2008 administered by Daniel Ubani, a Nigerian-born doctor who had flown in from Germany. Ubani had slept for only three hours before starting his shift.

“When Labour took responsibility for out-of-hours care away from GPs they made a serious error,” said Lansley.

“GPs should be collectively responsible for commissioning out-of-hours services. They are best placed to ensure patients are treated properly and that these awful events are never repeated again.”

Lansley could face a tough battle with GPs. One British Medical Association (BMA) representative said there was “not a cat in hell’s chance” of returning to the old system of the GP being ultimately responsible for out-of-hours care. He warned of mass resignations if contracts are to be torn up in this way.

For many years GPs considered themselves overworked and underpaid compared with hospital doctors. But in 2004 they successfully renegotiated their contracts with the National Health Service.

In what was seen as a coup for the profession, pay packets rose by 30% in the first year of the contracts, with the typical GP earning £106,000. Ministers later admitted they had blundered by seriously underestimating how many GPs would hit the pay-related targets included in the new contracts.

At the same time, GPs could opt out of providing round-the-clock care for patients if they gave up £6,000 a year in their salaries. Nine out of 10 GPs opted out. Out-of-hours cover is now provided by co-operatives run by GPs, private companies and PCTs.

“No one in their right mind would have designed the out-of-hours system in its current form,” said Peter Walsh, chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, which has campaigned for reform of the system. “There are a myriad different providers. The most common complaints are failures in making a proper diagnosis.”

Flaws in the system were highlighted by the case of Penny Campbell, 41, a journalist from north London who died in March 2005 despite six telephone calls and two face-to-face meetings with doctors working for an out-of-hours GP service. All failed to diagnose septicaemia.

Shortly before he became prime minister, Gordon Brown pledged to improve out-of-hours services. They started deteriorating in some areas in which trusts turned to foreign locums. One investigation found a third of PCTs were flying in GPs from Poland, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland.

In the early hours of February 16, 2008, Ubani, 66, flew into Britain for a shift starting at 8am with Take Care Now, an out-of-hours service. By his own admission he was exhausted. Gray died after Ubani gave him 10 times the correct dose of a painkiller for kidney stones. Later the same day Ubani failed to send another patient, Iris Edwards, 86, to hospital and she died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

Take Care Now has promoted itself to health authorities as a cheap out-of-hours service but GPs claims its low prices have come at the expense of quality.

Spot checks by NHS Cambridgeshire, a primary care trust, found “deficiencies” in the cover as recently as last November. The trust subsequently ended its contract with the company.

Gray’s son Stuart, a GP in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, said: “My father was betrayed by the system. All patients are being let down by the NHS because of the lack of vetting procedures and rules in place for EU doctors. It is a national scandal.”

The Tories believe that handing back responsibility for out-of-hours care to GPs will ensure a better service.


* April 2004 New contracts introduced for GPs, allowing doctors to drop out-of-hours cover.
* March 2005 Penny Campbell, a 41-year-old mother, dies of blood poisoning after consulting out-of-hours GP service eight times. Official inquiry finds “major system failure”.
* May 2006 National Audit Office finds only one in 10 trusts clinically assesses patient within 20 minutes of phone call.
* February 2008 David Gray, 70, is killed by an overdose accidentally given by Daniel Ubani, a locum out-of-hours doctor who flew in from Germany.
* June 2009 Care Quality Commission report on Gray’s death calls for fresh scrutiny of use of “non-local” doctors and improved training.

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