For GPs appointment- call NHS Health Direct if you want to see your doctor
Patients will have to contact a call centre to arrange GP appointments under plans for NHS Health Direct to handle bookings for local doctors’ surgeries.Anyone wanting an appointment will first have to contact NHS Direct by dialling 111, which will be used as the new non-emergency medical number.
Call centre staff would then make their booking remotely, meaning patients would no longer speak to a GP receptionist directly.
The scheme is being tested by 20 practices in Surrey, and appears to have the backing of Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary.
Doctors behind the proposal believe it will make booking appointments easier, but patients’ groups fear that many will find having to book through a call centre “hugely frustrating”.
There are also concerns that it could erode the role of dedicated GP receptionists – many of whom build up a close rapport with their doctors’ patients – with people having to deal with anonymous call centre staff with little medical experience instead. Unions believe thousands of receptionists could lose their jobs.
The move follows a report commissioned by the Department of Health last year that said millions of pounds could be saved each year if national or regional call centres were set up to handle GP appointments.
Exact details of the Surrey pilot have yet to be decided, but under one option patients would ring 111, ask for NHS Direct and then speak to a call centre worker who would book their appointment remotely. The doctors involved insist it will free receptionists to carry out other administrative duties.
Dr Joe McGilligan, a doctor in Redhill, Surrey, said: “Everyone in the NHS has to become more efficient and this is one way of doing that.”
Emphasising that he wanted to make life easier for patients, he said: “People complain about telephone services in GPs’ surgeries all the time. We only have a fixed number of lines.”
Patients would still have the option to ask to be put through directly to the surgery if they wanted to speak to a receptionist, he said. Another option was for the 111 number to run in tandem with GP surgery numbers.
“If it was up to me I’d launch this tomorrow, but it will be within six months,” Dr McGilligan told Pulse magazine.
Papers from NHS Direct show that the service is now in talks about handling GP appointments for hundreds of thousands of patients.
NHS Direct has already held talks with GP consortia in Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and London, according to Pulse, while managers also plan to discuss the idea with doctors in Birmingham, Torquay and south Gloucestershire.
NHS Direct is already booking out-of-hours GP appointments in several areas.
Dr Brian Gaffney, medical director of NHS Direct and a GP in Downpatrick, Co Down, said doctors were “keen to work with us”. “We know as GPs we can’t cope with demand for our practice appointments,” he said.
But other doctors and Unison, which represents receptionists, fear any move to centralise bookings could harm patient care. Karen Jennings, head of health at Unison, said: “We’ve all waited on the phone to get through to a call centre, with irritating muzak playing in the background. It’s a hugely frustrating, depersonalised, even upsetting experience, made even worse if you are ill or caring for a sick child or elderly relative.
“A properly funded receptionist, who knows their patients and can treat them with dignity, respect, and urgency, is what patients want.”
Dr Philip Cox, a GP from Buxton, Derbyshire, called the idea “ludicrous”. He said: “It will cause chaos and patients will be totally frustrated.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, cautioned that people would not want their receptionist to be replaced. “Patients want local services with people that know them.”
Before Christmas, the Department of Health distanced itself from the idea of centralising bookings, saying there were “no plans” for a national call centre. But last month, Mr Lansley indicated he was in favour, saying he hoped patients “will be able to make bookings” through the 111 number.
Tags: Andrew Lansley, Conservatives, Doctors, GPs, Health Direct, nhs cash shortages, NHS Direct, Patients' Association