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Practices offered to high-street stores in franchise plan

By Steve Nowottny

GP practices are to be forcibly converted into franchises and offered up to high-street retailers to run under ambitious plans welcomed by senior NHS managers as a blueprint for the future.

A new report warns that in inner cities across the UK ‘the current system of general practice is unsustainable', and recommends offering up contracts to companies including Virgin, Asda and Tesco.

NHS West Midlands praised the controversial proposals – which the Heart of Birmingham Teaching PCT voted to go ahead with last week – as ‘bold and highly ambitious', and in line with Government policy.

But GPs strongly condemned the proposals, which they warned would mean ‘the end of general practice as we know it'.

Under the Birmingham plans, the PCT's 76 separate practices will be franchised and moved into 24 polyclinic-style ‘primary care units'. The PCT said it planned to invite ‘trusted brand names' such as Virgin, Tesco and Asda who could take on franchises ‘within weeks and months'.

‘These organisations are confident they can replicate the best aspects of the GP partnership's relationships with its patients, as they do this with their own customers daily,' said the PCT in its Corporate Franchise Strategy.

Although the process of relocating GPs into polyclinics has begun in London, under proposals spearheaded by health minister Lord Ara Darzi, the plans in the heart of UK's second biggest city are even more radical.

Dr Robert Morley, secretary of Birmingham LMC, said the plan had come ‘out of the blue', and that local GPs were ‘demoralised' and ‘frightened'.

‘This gives us all a stark warning as to exactly where the Government's primary care strategy might lead,' he said.

The plans follow meetings between Lord Darzi and retail giants including the supermarket chains last month, aimed at forging a new APMS provider role.

A spokesperson for West Midlands SHA said the new plans ‘align with our regional strategy for health, Investing for Health, and both the SHA and Department of Health are committed to improving the quality and range of health services in primary care'.

But Dr Michael Taylor, chair of the Family Doctor Association, which relaunched itself this week ‘to take on the Tesco and Boots threat', said the plans were ‘insane'.

‘The religious zeal of Heart of Birmingham PCT in trying to out-Darzi Ara Darzi is fascinating.'

The future of general practice?

What the Heart of England Teaching PCT report says:
• ‘There is a growing interest in primary care as a future market from a number of non-health organisations such as Virgin, Tesco and ASDA.'
• ‘It is hoped that in the heart of Birmingham, some GPs, particularly younger ones, new entrants and portfolio professionals, will see a franchise model as an attractive option.'
Source: Corporate Franchise Strategy

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