The Government is on track to move all GP practices from analogue to digital telephony by March next year, according to its latest progress update on the recovery plan.
NHS England’s primary care director Dr Amanda Doyle also revealed to Pulse in an exclusive interview that almost 3,000 general practice staff had signed up to care navigation training in its first month.
This year’s GP contract imposition stipulated that GP practices must procure cloud-based telephony once their current contracts expire.
And the primary care recovery plan, published in May, announced £240m of funding for practices to ‘embrace latest technology’, with a focus on replacing old analogue phone systems.
It pledged to support all GP practices on analogue lines to move to digital telephony, including call back functionality, if they signed up by July 2023.
Dr Doyle told Pulse that ‘every single practice who hasn’t yet got a cloud based telephony system has signed up now to have one installed this year’.
And the Government has today announced that more than 1,000 practices have signed up to make the move over to digital telephony, and they will receive an average investment of £60,000 to support this.
The announcement said: ‘It is expected every practice in the country will have the new system in place by the end of this financial year.’
However, Dr Doyle suggested that some practices have digital systems that may need improvements.
She said: ‘We’re now looking at the practices that have digital systems, but they don’t necessarily have the most functional digital system, so they’re not on the highest quality systems.’
The NHSE director also told Pulse that having a new telephone system ‘is not the answer on its own’, and that it must be combined with other digital tools to improve patient experience.
‘What we’re talking about when we talk about modern general practice access is the combination of cloud based telephony, high quality digital triage and flow tools, and high quality communications platforms.
‘That actually changes the operating model. It’s not just about telephones. What we do know about telephones is that being able to properly signpost, queue, call back through phones makes a difference to patients,’ Dr Doyle added.
From the end of 2025, all analogue lines will be switched off across the UK, in a national transition by the telecoms industry to digital landlines.
Deputy chair of the BMA’s GP Committee England Dr Samira Anane said demand in general practice ‘is still far outstripping supply’ and as a result patients are becoming ‘understandably’ frustrated.
She said: ‘Unfortunately, installing a new telephone system isn’t going to change that. Ultimately, we still need staff to pick up the phone, make decisions about where best to triage the call, and if it’s to see a GP, then we need more of them to be able to see those patients.
‘Practices are best placed to do this, and urgent investment and resources are needed to support and retain the workforce. Turning on the taps, without mending or fixing the holes, won’t address the issues – we need to take a holistic approach.’
‘The Government needs to stop getting distracted and focus on the underlying issue of bolstering the workforce in general practice. No telephone system can replace a GP, and if we keep losing them at the rate we currently are, then there’ll be none left to give the care our patients need and deserve,’ Dr Anane added.
In addition to digital tools, the recovery plan also announced a major expansion of the role of receptionists to become expert ‘care navigators’ who can direct patients to other services where appropriate.
Dr Doyle said NHS England had seen ‘a huge uptake’ of this training with ‘almost 3,000 people signed up in the first month alone’.
Practices can also now sign up to the support programme promised in the recovery plan, which aims to help them achieve better access for patients.
NHS England has confirmed this week that so far over 400 practices and PCNs have signed up for the intensive and intermediate stages of this programme.
Health secretary Steve Barclay welcomed the news that 1,000 practices will soon move over to digital telephony which he said is ‘designed to make booking an appointment as easy as possible for patients for years to come’.
He said: ‘We are delivering on our promises to make access to GP appointments easier while boosting staffing numbers.
‘With the support of NHS England, general practices, pharmacies and dental surgeries, backed by significant investment from the government we will bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments.’