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At the heart of general practice since 1960

New contract must keep public support

The current action by firefighters means GPs may have to justify their pay rise to the public, writes Ian Cameron

The public will want to know what they are getting for their money if GPs are awarded a bumper pay rise through the new contract, according to

patient groups.

But by linking any pay increase to the modernisation of services that will follow, GPs can convince the public that they are worth it.

The GPC has admitted that the current firefighters' action and pending nurses' and teachers' pay campaigns have raised concern that GPs could be portrayed as money-grabbers when the contract is announced. Negotiators are convinced, however, that GPs' claims are justified and will have widespeard support.

Brian McGinnis, a member of the Patients' Forum steering group, said the modernisation inherent in the GP contract would help convince the public of GPs' claims.

'It's trying to have a better medical agenda and to provide quality incentives for good practice so the new contract represents modernisation,' he said. 'If GPs sign up to it they look like they are accepting that.'

Public perception of GPs remains good, for now.

A survey carried out by online pollsters YouGov last week found that 75 per cent of people were satisfied with the service provided by their GP.

David Evans, consultant to the NHS pay and workforce research unit, said the public recognised the pressures faced by GPs because of the length of time they had to wait for an appointment.

'But there does seem to be this feeling that you don't get something for nothing. People are aware of the record investment going in but they want to see results,' Mr Evans said.

'They won't want to see money going into the pockets of doctors without getting anything back.'

How public support would stand up if GPs choose to reject their contract for reasons other than pay, as consultants did, is a delicate matter.

John Northrop, director of the NHS pay and workforce research unit, said the public would not naturally sympathise with a GP pay dispute.

'Most people see GPs as middle-class people who drive nice cars,' he said. 'I can't see there being a massive public reaction but it will depend on how the press handles it.'

Others have argued that the long-standing public support GPs enjoy as a result of their personal contact with patients has waned because people now have more access to health information.

'I don't think GPs are on a platform in the way that they used to be,' said Eileen Hutton, lay chair of the RCGP's Patient Partnership Group.

'There's been a general levelling as people have more access to information on their own and there's always publicity now when things go wrong.'

But Ms Hutton added that GPs could still expect more sympathy than the consultants got if they reject what looks like a significant pay deal.

'The contact with a GP is a bit more personal and long-term than it is with the consultants,' she said.

Firefighters' public support had started to wane last week as people saw early signs of a second winter of discontent.

If the current wave of industrial unrest rumbles on into the new year, public sympathy might be difficult to generate by the time GPs begin their pay debate.

 · See Comment, page 18

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