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Government drops appointment call centre plans after GP outrage



By Ian Quinn

The Government has been forced into a humiliating climbdown over plans backed by the Department of Health for all GP patient appointments to be handled by national or regional call centres.

Pulse broke the news yesterday that under radical proposals to slash £600m off NHS spending, NHS managers had urged GPs to axe their entire back-office teams, with potentially tens of thousands of staff being made redundant.

However, today the Department of Health, which had originally applauded the report, went into rapid reverse gear, saying it had ‘no plans to pursue the idea’.

Pulse readers had reacted with outrage to the proposals, which were hailed yesterday by the DH’s national director for improvement and efficiency, Jim Easton, as ‘just one example of how the service is taking the lead in identifying where they can make best use of resources for the benefit of patients, as well as the taxpayer.’

Pulse received a record level of feedback on the story, with more than 130 commenters almost unanimously opposed to the plans. The story also attracted widespread national coverage, with Tony Spotswood, chief executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and chair of the review group which wrote the report, appearing on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning to explain the proposals.

Dr Catti Moss, a GP in Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, said: ‘Every single time that anyone has tried to cut costs by centralising any NHS function, the efficiency has plummeted and the costs soared.’

‘Out-of-hours care, NHS Direct, Choose and Book, the IT fiasco of the ‘spine’… all have failed to deliver either any improvement in efficiency or cuts in costs. This would be even worse, a total disaster.’

Dr Neil Bhatia, a GP in Yateley, Hampshire, said: ‘Ah, the good old Department of Health. “The eyes are open, the mouth moves but Mr Brain has long since departed, hasn’t he?”‘

GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman led official BMA condemnation of the plans.

‘Every five minutes, someone, somewhere is coming up with a great idea,’ he said. ‘This isn’t going to be one of them.’

‘A group of people paid by the department – but they clearly don’t represent GPs and to be honest I’ve never heard of them – have come out with a suggestion. It’s like British Rail commenting on general practice.’

The DH-commissioned review by the NHS Confederation’s Foundation Trust Network calls for a major overhaul of NHS back-office functions, including PCTs and then GP consortia sharing back-office functions with other NHS bodies and private firms.

Dr Buckman said: ‘It talks about having shared models. The very reason people register with me is because I don’t have a shared service model. Ask the public what they feel about call centres in general. And in health in particular. Ask patients what they think about, when they want to talk to their GP and their practice nurse.’

‘It takes fifteen seconds for the average GP to see how this won’t work. ‘

Deputy GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey added: ‘The people who dreamt this up have no idea how general practice operates.’

Today a DH spokesperson said: ‘We commissioned an independent report and it has a number of proposals in it and this is just one of them. There is no reason to suggest we won’t be commissioning other independent reports but the call centres is something we won’t be going ahead with and it seems as though that’s what GPs want.’

Health minister Lord Howe said: ‘This was a single suggestion in a much wider independent report, written by NHS professionals. It contained a number of ideas on how to save money and improve patient care. The report was always for the NHS to consider and respond to, not the Department of Health.’

Dr Laurence Buckman: ‘It takes fifteen seconds for the average GP to see how this won’t work’ Dr Laurence Buckman: ‘It takes fifteen seconds for the average GP to see how this won’t work’