This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

pul jul aug2020 cover 80x101px
Read the latest issue online

Independents' Day

A ‘John Lewis’ business model is revolutionising how we work

Dr Des Spence and colleagues describe how modeling their practice business on a mutual company is benefiting staff and patients 

dr des spence square

The problem

General practice is in meltdown. We are struggling to recruit new GPs and a cohort of experienced full-time GPs are due to retire soon. Few GPs seem to want the responsibility of becoming partners. There is an unstoppable cultural force of change; more of the same won’t work. Patients, doctors, staff and care are all suffering.

We and similar practices in Scotland were facing all these challenges. We decided a business based on a social enterprise model, such as that of John Lewis, would allow more equity and free resources to develop the care we deliver.

What we did 

We accepted the new reality: more money will not solve the fundamentals. We acknowledged that GPs want to work hard but also want a balanced, controlled environment. Patients, above all else, want access. We sought to address both these issues through our business overhaul.

We now operate at scale with 65,000 patients over five sites in Glasgow, Edinburgh and West Lothian. Culture is key: we have developed a flat management structure, only first names are used and all clinical staff are encouraged to wear scrubs, in a colour of their choice. All non-GP staff are paid more than recommended salary levels and share equitably in a bonus scheme, making payments twice a year. Partners’ income has been capped and all resources are reinvested.

Our guiding group principles are ‘less medicine is more medicine’ and a service based on ‘today’s work today’.

Time is our most limited resource so we have also implemented changes to manage our time closely. We have broken the working day into ‘tasks’ and expressed these as ‘work streams’, as follows:

- Paperwork - centralised paperwork with admin processing 80% of documents and the rest being sent to a single dedicated GP to address.

- House calls - managed by a paramedic (a senior, highly trained and experience clinician).

- Telephone consults and acute prescription requests dealt with by duty doctor sessions.

- Reports completed centrally by one single GP within a declination session.

- Results returned to the requesting clinician and all results communicated by phone or text even when normal. On-call/duty doctor screens all results, acting as a safety net by dealing with all urgent abnormalities that need to be addressed that day.

We used skill mixing with senior nurses taking clinical roles as GP nurses or ANPs - vital in hard-to-recruit areas. We used pooled resources to employ counselling staff, physiotherapists, pharmacists and facilitate weight reduction programmes. These operate to our remit, for example the physios offer an assessment and advice but not ongoing treatment. Counselling is limited to three half-hour sessions with signposting to additional resources. We do not want to reinvent the wheel; we are trying to manage the waiting times for these services.

Importantly, all clinical staff are managed and supported. We have practice policies to limit the use of psychoactive red drugs and antidepressants. We act collectively. We do not see drug representatives.

We addressed access by ensuring that 80% of appointments are available ‘on-the-day’, ensuring the appointments system is not dominated by a small group of frequent returners. We ensured all telephones were answered within five rings even in busy ‘hot’ times, like mornings. We open 7 till 7 in one site and open Saturdays till 4pm. We limit the ability of clinicians to ‘bring back’ patients. We simplified our offering - appointment, telephone call back or house call. The patient decides. Triage does not work.


Changing culture is hard, changing clinical practice is harder still. The art is to have clarity over what you seek to achieve and to keep systems as simple as possible; so much of medicine is over engineered and needlessly complicated, putting unnecessary barriers between patients and clinicians.

Rapid growth has been challenging. With such a large organisation, we found communication was an issue so we now provide a lunch for a weekly practice meeting, and have a WhatsApp group to disseminate information. We also run in-house CPD every few months focused on common clinical scenarios to create some clinical consensus.

But the greatest challenge to general practice is not changing at all.


In general the GPs find the work is more social, the structure inclusive and the skill mixing interesting. Liberating GPs from paperwork and house calls has been a godsend; everyone leaves on time. Morale, running counter to the current narrative, is very high.

We estimate that we are 20% more efficient as a consequence of the changes.

We took one practice with long queues of patients at 7.30 am looking for an appointment, to a situation where we often have free appointments in the afternoon. We have large numbers of patients choosing to join our practices.

We have also been able to recruit and retain staff. This has been further improved by, for example supporting two staff who started in admin through University, both of whom recently returned to work as nurses in the practice.

We regularly seek patient opinion and feedback has been very strongly positive about our changes. We acknowledge we can still do better.

The future

We hope to expand further but most importantly we want to be a catalyst for change. We believe general practice should remain in the hands of clinicians and staff, not corporations. We are evolving into a social enterprise salaried model, where doctors can become salaried partners, which values innovation and efficiency and rewards all staff: an organisation based on a Charter that people can believe in. Importantly, we are actively consulting on a legal framework to ensure that business will pass into the hands of all the staff – clinical and admin – in a model similar to that of John Lewis. Our aspiration is that we want to be the best place to work in primary care. Our only advice to GPs is to embrace change, for it is not a choice. If we can do it, so can you.

Dr Des Spence and Dr Fiona Taylor are GP partners and Kim McWilliams is practice manager at Barclay Medical Practices

Rate this article  (3.19 average user rating)

Click to rate

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

0 out of 5 stars

Readers' comments (15)

  • 'Partners income is capped'

    Says it all really. Best of luck.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • If all letters and reports are handled by a single GP, how will the other GPs learn this side of the job? How will they get feedback on their referrals? This is all part of the learning process. Also god help this one GP. Must be really boring.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Are the liabilities shared out as well?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Would be interesting to know if the funding for these practices are comparable to the rest of us?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @8:10

    I thought Dr Spence meant that a session is periodically scheduled whereby one GP does all the outstanding reports.

    Not that it is always the same GP.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • "only first names are used"

    "Partner income Capped"


    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I find some of the comments really quite depressing. But then again many partners are somewhat obsessed with partnership profits. I wouldn’t ask Des Spence to divulge what the doctors’ incomes are but I wouldn’t mind betting that they are quite sufficient to live comfortably.

    Sounds an interesting concept but not for everyone. I believe that there are some similarities with Sir Sam Everington’s practice in Tower Hamlets. We need to find better ways than the GP partners being all powerful. If the business begins to fail in a new model such as this, then everyone begins to lose out, not just the doctors, which should in itself motivation for everyone to work well together. We are already seeing many practices with Managing and Nursing partners; this seems to be to be an extension of that. But heaven forbid, we couldn’t let that happen could we?

    Evolve or die.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • With a huge student population agree this model might work when a large proportion of your patients disappear off home for large parts of the year.

    Limiting bringing patients back - is that not what is known as lack of continuity? How does this work with multi- morbid, frail elderly or deprived populations? What are the knock on costs in secondary care etc??

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Interesting but article doesn’t mention that the practice in Glasgow has a huge amount of students and very few patients over 50. Don’t think you can see the same GP very easily. From previous articles though It would appear that the evolution of general practice means that there isn’t any continuity in Gp land anymore . My understanding was that continuity was the very essence of being a GP. Must be old fashioned

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Vinci Ho

    (1)As I always say , ‘survival is victory’ . It is not realistic to insist in rhetorics if ‘death’ is imminent. So , am glad that you have found the way through.
    (2) But also believes ‘one size cannot fit all.’
    (3) The fact some of us could find a way through , does not mean we can tolerate more austerity thrown at us from our common enemy. The ongoing narrative remains a confrontational one(at least , at this moment) , I am afraid .
    Given the way the medical professionals being treated in NHS , I would rather quote Confucius once again in Analects,
    ‘’If this can be endured,what else cannot be?If this can be tolerated,then what can be called intolerable?’’(事可忍孰不可忍).
    I totally accept the result of the new Scottish GP contract ballot but this also does not represent capitulation to more oppressions from our common enemy.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Agree Vinci one size does not fit all, a city centre practice in a deprived area does not have to be managed the same as a rural practice.

    Roland I agree continuity was (mostly) a gd part of the job. However the worsening working conditions have made working 9 sessions a week intolerable for most - continuity has inevitably suffered as less clinicians have the will to work “full time”

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • It might be nice to pretend to be ‘flat’ with no referral to job roles or salutations but when something goes wrong it is not the admin facilitator who ends up in court. It is the gmc numbered ‘Dr X’ who pays £10k indemnity that is the target for both systemic and individual NHS failings.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Bob Hodges

    We're doing the same in Gloucester, but we have no intention of capping partner income. We aim to create a differential so that there is an incentive to become a partner. In the end, you need people to accept not just liabilities and risks of partnership, but seize the opportunities as well.

    If you leave 'change' and 'innovation' to politicians and civil servants, you end up with stuff like NHS 111. Nuff said. GPs are the only game in town when it comes to the future of GP.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • David Banner

    This trend towards not bringing back patients for follow up is troubling and very myopic.
    Yes, it may free up more appointments in the short term, but who will review these patients? Either they will return to another random GP (who has to start over), or more likely need a phone consult.
    These will mushroom into a long list of phone calls tagged on to an already full surgery. And once patients discover this luxury, they will use it ad infinitum.
    It is Fool’s Gold to think this will reduce workload, and makes a mockery of continuity of care (remember that?).
    Plus it is a monumental medicolegal minefield in these miserable days of medical malpractice and manslaughter............

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Why don’t you do a follow up piece on this to see how many doctors continue to work for him?
    Pretty much all the regulars have left. Leaving the patients with Locums and zero continuity.
    Fantastic model of care

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say