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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Let’s bin the 2004 contract and create a new ‘Red Book’

Dr Christiane Harris argues that to save general practice we may need to reconsider past models

When you see an old copy of the Red Book, what do you think? Good riddance? Glad I don’t have to use that? Probably. But are we really better without it? Today, we have so many initiatives that make earning GP income even more onerous with few obvious benefits to our patients and increased stress for us. At least the Red Book made it clear which tasks were contractual and allowed us to be funded for them.

For the younger reader, we first need to explain a little history. The symbol of the 1990 contract, the Red Book, was a small loose-leaf binder that contained ‘terms and conditions of service’. It wasn’t popular as it was the first iteration of target-driven practice, dressed up as preventive medicine. However, for most tasks we performed, the tariff was clearly set out in the book and we were generally paid for the work we did. We knew where we stood.

A clear tariff is a much better carrot than the clumsy initiatives that grow yearly in number and complexity

Where we are now

Fast forward to the 2004 contract and we enter a dizzy and disorientating world, sadly familiar to us all, where we don’t know what we should or shouldn’t do or get paid for. This is a world of the QOF, which seems to have new areas each year, tighter and higher targets to achieve. We also have the alarming news that ‘retired targets’ are never really retired, it is just assumed that, like Pavlov’s dogs, we will all continue to perform tasks (and the QOF police can slap our wrists if we don’t).

It’s also a world of ever-growing numbers of direct and locally enhanced services. The extended hours DES involves colleagues staggering in to start at 7am, others of us working until 8pm, but if a couple of sessions are cancelled due to staff absences there is no payment at all for the work we have done.

Perhaps even more galling is the avoiding unplanned admissions DES. Even if it actually prevented patients ending up in hospital unnecessarily (and sadly in my experience it doesn’t), writing, discussing and agreeing a care plan takes a lot of time. If, for any reason, we are a few days late in completing reviews or fail to notice the numbers on the register have fallen below the required totals there is not a penny for all that work. When we had the Red Book, at least we were paid for the work we did.

In addition, there is the vexatious issue of the global sum. Lists of core contractual work have been compiled elsewhere, but aren’t formally written in the GMS contract. Meanwhile, individual GPs can’t remember what they have signed up for or what each initiative requires. At least the Red Book spelled out what was contractual work.

I am not naïve enough to believe we should reinstate the old Red Book itself, because even then it was clear that some of the tasks were not evidence based and were often shown to give poor health benefit for the expense. But given the improved use of Read coding in computerised records, we are more able to demonstrate the work we do. All we want is to be paid for it. A clear tariff (which might include a bonus if we managed to reach specific targets) that recognised the work we had achieved is a much better carrot than the clumsy initiatives that grow yearly in number and complexity.

Red Book approach

A ‘Red Book approach’ could involve the money following the patient as care flows from secondary to primary care. The more chronic disease registers a patient appears on, the more funding the GP receives for caring for them, and they could also get a small premium for achieving targets in each group. Admission avoidance and the bulk of the QOF could be swept away in a stroke and pay would more fairly reflect workload.

Those who disagree with me would, no doubt, say that this would be stepping dangerously close to a system such as occurs in health maintenance organisations, with everything having its fixed fee and needing an army of claims clerks. I don’t think that’s necessarily so, with the technology we have now.

A clear statement of fees and a contract that is more specific about what is and is not NHS work would allow overworked and often overwrought GPs to either charge for, or justifiably decline, non-contractual requests. A new Red Book might be the best way to do this.

Dr Christiane Harris is a GP in Luton and chair of Bedfordshire LMC. The views expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily those of Bedfordshire LMC

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Readers' comments (6)

  • The rest of the NHS is moving away from payment by results and back to block contracts. Its not even worth asking for GP to go back to the Red Book

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  • One of the - many - problems with the Red Book was the claw-back.
    Remember the equation?
    Total funding for general practice = ((intended average remuneration per GP) + (unreimbursed expenses per GP)*(number of GPs in post)): this was divided among as many fees as possible to get maximum work done - then if GPs - as a whole - "overperformed", the amount of the "overperformance" was deducted from the following year's settlement...
    Problems came with difficulties in recruiting GPs: falling numbers in post led to a decrease in the total funding - and at a time when TPTB wanted to move work into primary care.
    I agree that QOF and DESs have been restructured to make sure that as much as possible of the work done in general practice is *not* funded - especially after it has been performed - but the same approach was being adopted under the Red Book!

    When the apparent intention is to reduce payments to general practice by making the claiming rules as complex as possible - and then installing outsourced organisations which, on their reported record, are incapable of delivering them, who thinks a Red Book system - with or without claw-back - would be anything except another means of achieving the same ends?





    When QOF was introduced, it worked reasonably well

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  • Look at the Australian format. It won't happen as we have rampant privatisation within the service. That's what should be getting dealt with including appointing NHS administrators, let's formally publish their ridiculous salaries like those of the BBC in the National newspapers

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  • Can you imagine Capita processing IOS payments???

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  • Just to be pedantic The red book was the symbol of the 1966 contract
    Where it all went wrong in 2004 and subsequently was the delinking of practice expenses. I was one of two voices of protest amongst the negotiating team at the time and I was outvoted. Nevertheless until 2014 we were ahead of the game compared to where we were in 2004. Many will recognise that we are at a terrible time now but we were as close to collapse in 2001 as now . many of us couldn't recruit AND we still were working the clock round. It aint good now but nor was it then. Bottom line is that until GPs as a group whether partners or sessional learn their terms of service and learn to say no and stop being bleeding hearts we will continue to be mercilessly exploited by the government of the day

    Peter Holden GPC Negotiating Team 1999-2014

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  • I agree with bringing back the Red Book. The Last Labour Government increased the funding to the NHS up to the EU Average bringing Hospital waiting lists down from 2 years to 2 weeks but the Conservatives (part of whom objected to the NHS before it was even founded) always reduce the funding to the NHS and it is worse now because of the increasing size of the elderly population and the wasting of 15% or more of the NHS budget on commissioning (an invention of the Conservatives) which has been of no benefit to the patients or the NHS. We taxpayers pay for public services and we should not have to pay shareholders dividends or the inflated salaries of the private bosses which we do if a private contract is let. Consider the chaos of the routine patient transport service in Sussex let to a private transport firm unable to provide the vehicle and staff without bankrupting themselves. What the NHS Secretaries of State have done is to dump us all in this low level market in which back-hander corruption, clinical incompetence and and commercial incompetence can flourish. Is this really where we want the NHS to be?

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