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Digital GP providers will ‘help expand GP workforce’, says Government

Digital GP models will help grow GP numbers while primary care networks will be  key to recruiting more staff to work in general practice, the Government’s NHS long-term plan has claimed.

The plan, released today, says that there is evidence GPs are attracted to the flexibilty offered by digital providers, which allows them to take on part-time roles.

On top of this, it claims that primary care networks will ‘attract and fund additional staff’ – initially focusing on clinical pharmacists, link workers, physiotherapists and physician associates, before moving onto other staff such as community paramedics.

The plan also re-announced the Government target to increase the GP workforce by 5,000, which it said it was ‘committed to’.

The long-term plan, which sets out how the Government will spend a £20.5bn funding boost for the NHS, has pledged an extra £4.5bn for primary and community care by 2023/24, however Pulse has learned that in order to recieve this money, practices in England will be mandated to join primary care networks of 30-50,000 patients from April.

However, there was little detail about GP recruitment in the long-term plan as a separate workforce plan is to be released later this year. 

But it did suggest that digital providers and the move to larger groupings of practices will be more attractive to GPs and practice staff.

The Government had already reported that within the next five years, ‘every patient in England will have a new right to choose digital-first primary care – usually from their own practice or, if they prefer, from one of the new digital GP providers’.

But the new plan suggested this will support GP recruitment. It said: ‘There is also emerging experience that digital GP models can help expand the GP workforce participation rate by offering flexible opportunities to part-time GPs.’

At the same time, the move to primary care networks – covering populations of around 30,000-50,000 patients – will aid recruitment. It said: ‘The new primary care networks will provide flexible options for GPs and wider primary care teams. Staff and patients alike will benefit from a doubling of the number of volunteers also helping across the NHS.’

It reiterated the GP recruitment targets: ‘We still believe we need a net increase of 5,000 GPs as soon as possible and are committed to this.’

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘GPs are open to working differently in the best interests of patient care, and we know that working in larger groupings can be beneficial in terms of increased peer support, building resilience in the system and working more collaboratively – and primary care networks build on models that have been shown to be successful.

‘However, it is vital that this is done in a way that minimises disruption for hard pressed GPs and their practices and enables progress to be made in a way that protects the ability of GPs to deliver care in the way that best meets the needs of their local communities.’

She added: ‘These bold ideas need to be underpinned by a robust and comprehensive workforce strategy and a sustainable funding settlement for general practice through the GP contract. We will continue to work with NHS England to make these a reality for GP teams and their patients as soon as possible.’

In 2015, then health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to add at least 10,000 extra primary care staff, including 5,000 GPs, within five years.

But although NHS England said it was ‘on track’ to recruit the 5,000 other staff, Mr Hunt admitted he was ‘struggling to deliver’ on GP numbers.

The emphasis on digital providers follows health secretary Matt Hancock claims that digital-first GP service Babylon GP at Hand – which uses the out-of-area registration scheme to sign up patients across London – improves patient access to services by ‘taking pressure off the NHS’.

Mr Hancock has previously come under fire from GPs over his support for the app, which de-registers patients from their local practice when they sign up.