GP practices are to have their waiting times for appointments published under a drive to improve access, says NHS chief executive Simon Stevens.
Speaking in front of the cross-party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee today, Mr Stevens said that NHS England would begin collecting waiting times data this year.
Mr Stevens added that he wanted to see access to GP appointments improving as a result of the increased investment into the general practice workforce.
At the hearing, that followed a critical report from the National Audit Office that said the Government had a ‘crude’ understanding of current demand and capacity.
But Mr Stevens said that NHS England was significantly increasing its measurements of general practice, including a scheme for practices to report their workload, and an audit of waiting times.
He told MPs: ‘We want to have more information on the availability of GP appointments for routine conditions, and we are going to start collecting those data through the course of this year.
‘We’re going to publish those so people can see what waiting times are, I think that will be good for patients, it will be good for GPs, actually.’
He added that, while NHS England recognises general practice is under significant strain, it was also receiving investment – particularly in new workforce – and ‘therefore it’s reasonable to expect, on the back of that, improved access’.
Stevens added that this year they would also introduce a ‘GP practice workload tool to measure what is happening inside primary care’.
He told the PAC that the lack of this data on workload pressures had contributed to historic underfunding and was one of the reasons ‘GP services have lost out compared to other parts of the NHS’.
Pulse has asked NHS England to clarify whether waiting times data would be published at individual practice level.
GP leaders said no details had been worked out and it would not be straightforward. GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey told Pulse: ‘Practices operate in varying ways and there are patients who want to wait to see a GP of their choice, how do you qualify that and compare patients who will happily see any GP for a particular episode of care?’
The National Audit Office report highlighted some areas of the country where practices were closing once a week or more during core hours, despite in some cases also receiving funding from the extended access DES.
The panel today clarified that 75% of these practices were located in roughly 50 of the 211 CCGs in England.
NHS England’s director of commissioning development Rosamond Roughton said these patterns were ‘concentrated in very particular parts of the country’ without obvious reason.
She added there was some confusion in practices’ response – as follow up queries with some practices revealed many still provide appointment booking, or prescriptions collection services, but that publishing the data had impacted their behaviour.
Ms Roughton said: ‘In many parts of the country [practices] saw the data and were taken aback: “Why are some practices closing for half day when we’re not?”
‘In some ways we know peer pressure is one of the ways we can see change happen.’
She said NHS England would not be afraid to also use contractual penalties to change these behaviours, but intended to take a ‘supportive’ approach initially as many of these practices have acute workforce difficulties.
RCGP chair Professor Helen-Stokes Lampard said that ‘data can be a very useful tool in improving patient care’ but ‘data on waiting times should not be used as a measure of performance, as this will be affected by too many variables’.
‘Average waiting times will be influenced by population demographics and deprivation levels in an area, for example, as well as factors at a practice level, such as recruitment difficulties,’ she said.
She added: ‘The College has not shied away from highlighting the issue of soaring waiting times for patients to see their GP – and we want to work with NHS England and others to improve the service for patients, right across the NHS…
It is essential that any data derived from general practice is used in a meaningful way to inform and improve the health service and the care that patients receive, and is not simply used as a stick to beat hard working GPs and our teams with.