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The Government's primary care consultation kicked off in a Gateshead leisure centre Rob Finch watched events unfold
There was no kids' soccer skills session for budding Michael Owens at Gateshead's leisure centre last Wednesday.
Instead, 89 Tyneside residents sat around a handful of tables, spread across two badminton courts in the harshly-lit gym, and tried to decide the future of UK general practice.
Tea and coffee was available behind a cricket net. Social care minister Liam Byrne stood to the side watching proceedings.
So began the Department of Health's much-vaunted public consultation on a White Paper for primary care which threatens to have devastating consequences for general practice.
Three further meetings, in Plymouth, Leicester and London, will take place in the next month. A mass meeting in Birmingham involving 1,000 people gratingly called 'Citizens' Day' will round off the process in October.
Given the fanfare from the department about the consultation, low key would be an understatement to describe this first event.
Perhaps this was the reason officials first appeared to know nothing of it when Pulse asked to come, and why they then tried to convince us it would not be worth the effort to trek up from London.
Whatever the reason, it was at least clear the event was not a political stitch-up.
The 89 men and women were chosen from 10,000 people in the Tyneside area who earlier in the year were sent questionnaires.
In total 110 people, representing a cross-section of the region, were invited. A disappointing 21 failed to turn up. Most took a day off work to attend. Each was paid expenses and a small fee.
Department apparatchiks were noticeably absent until the minister turned up late in the day and only the market researchers from Opinion Leader Research, hired to conduct the event, facilitated proceedings.
So how did they try to get answers to the big issues which will shape the White Paper and was it worth it?
The day was structured around four broad questions (see box), decided in advance.
Participants then divided into 10 tables to debate each question. For the first, they were asked to brainstorm what was most important to them.
The answers were broad, predictable and grouped around four themes: better access to services; more information; continuity and better co-ordination both within and between services; and higher quality of care.
For the next three questions the process was different. This was also the first time the Government's already-stated agenda started to influence events. Although people were asked to make suggestions, the end result was a vote on which of three or four priorities they thought was important.
For instance, on the issue of how, when and where people wanted to get their care, the five options included: from late-opening GP surgeries; walk-in centres or a different GP surgery away from where they live; and from more convenient community services.
So the outcomes were a
series of responses on the Government's agenda, not a free flow of ideas that might challenge that agenda.
The spanner in the works was that people were almost equally divided across all the options.
Late-opening GP surgeries was the most popular of the five options to the above example, but only 26 per cent chose it.
Where three options were given for another question, the split was almost exactly
As an exercise to help decide priorities, it was hard to see what ministers could have got out of it.
Certainly, the Great Pulse Patient Survey, carried out with Newcastle and North Tyneside LMC, gave a stronger indication of what patients want.
Addressing the participants at the end of a gruelling day, Liam Byrne reassured them they were taking part in the biggest consultation since the inception of the NHS.
Later, Mr Byrne tells Pulse people were very pragmatic in their views. 'They know they can't have some kind of Utopian system by next Tuesday,' he said.
'They understand that trade-offs have to be made but what's different about this process is that they're actually being included.'
But what did the volunteers think?
Carol Collinson from Dur-ham said she found it difficult to prioritise. 'We want better services. We want better access and more information.
'It's about services the
local services. The medical centres and the walk-in centres we want access more immediately to them.'
Mark Conway from Jarrow, who stressed he was not a Labour supporter, praised his GP surgery for cutting referrals. 'People are happy because they don't have to go to hospital. You have to marry things up like that,' he said.
As they left to catch the Metro, though, two of the people whose views the Government says it is relying on to help shape the future of primary care discussed what they really got out of the day.
'It's more money than you get for a day from the Department for Work and Pensions,' said one.
What patients were asked
·What is most important to you about community health and social care services?
·How can we help you take care of yourself and support you and your family in your daily lives?
·When you and your family need help and support, how, when, where and from whom do you want to get it?
·How can we help you get the right services, when you need them, and ensure your care and support is properly co-ordinated?