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GPC admits 'gentlemen's agreements' on poaching patients exist

By Steve Nowottny

A number of GP practices are operating ‘unacceptable' gentlemen's agreement's not to take on each others patients, the BMA admitted this week.

Ministers first accused GPs of operating the controversial agreements in July, claiming practices in some areas were blocking patient choice and arguing they were part of the reason the Government had decided to scrap the MPIG.

Negotiators had furiously denied the claims, with GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman stating: ‘It's absolute nonsense to suggest there are gentlemen's agreements – it just doesn't happen.'

But GP leaders have now conceded that while some practices are genuinely unable to take on new patients, others are unfairly restricting patient choice.

In its September newsletter, the GPC said it had ‘been made aware of a small number of such examples where some unacceptable practices are occurring.'

‘The GPC would certainly not support any agreements between GP practices that unreasonably prevent patients from moving between practices and urges practices to ensure this does not occur.'

A BMA spokesperson told Pulse that the association's Public Information Unit had received reports from patients of eight such agreements.

Meanwhile the Department of Health has released under the Freedom of Information Act a summary of some of the complaints it received that prompted health minister Ben Bradshaw's comments.

The Department said it did not believe the practice to be commonplace, but said it had received a number of anecdotal complaints.

In one case, a patient asked to join a practice directly opposite his new home only to be told he would need to be interviewed by his existing practice across town if he wished to move, as local practices had an agreement not to ‘poach' patients.

In another, a retired medical consultant wrote to both the Department of Health and the BMA outlining how local restrictive practices had affected her and other residents at a retirement development in trying to register with a GP.

But local GP leaders insisted that any such incidents were very much in a minority. Dr Richard Brown, medical director of Surrey and Sussex LMCs, said he had never heard of such an arrangement.

‘There are clearly situations where a patient may not understand the implications of changing their registered doctor - it may not be in the best interests of their healthcare to change their registered doctor,' he said.

‘So if someone's changing registered doctors within an area where they continue to live, sometimes it would be reasonable to discuss with them what their reasons were for changing.'

‘It's not discrimination, it isn't a gentlemen's agreement - it's about what's best for the patient's health.'

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