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NHS Direct call centre to handle GP bookings

By Ian Quinn

Exclusive: NHS Direct call-centre staff are to start handling all GP appointments for tens of thousands of patients within months, as part of proposals for the organisation to run booking services for practices across the country.

Patients will be told to ring the Government's new 111 number for all primary care services, rather than just for urgent care, with NHS Direct call handlers to give patients a range of options including booking an appointment at their practice.

The first trial is to launch in Surrey, involving 20 pathfinder practices, but NHS Direct is in talks with a further eight GP consortia and plans to offer the service nationwide.

Dr Brian Gaffney, medical director of NHS Direct and a GP in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, told Pulse: ‘We know as GPs we can't cope with demand for our practice appointments. We're meeting with pathfinders and GPs are keen to work with us.'

The pilot, also involving Surrey ambulance service, will see all calls for practices in the ESyDoc consortium fielded by NHS Direct via the 111 number, with patients directed to their local practices or given the option of accessing NHS Direct telephone or online support.

Dr Joe McGilligan, a GP in Redhill, Surrey, and chair of ESyDoc, said: ‘If it was up to me I'd launch this tomorrow, but it will be within six months. It's time GPs stopped being so negative towards NHS Direct and worked with the service.' He said GP reception staff would not be made redundant and would have more time for their other roles.

NHS Direct has suffered a rocky relationship with the profession over the performance of its 0845 number, but says running expanded urgent care, in-hours triage and booking systems for consortia is ‘key' to its future services.

It has already held talks with GP consortia in other areas, including Northamptonshire, Not- tinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and London, and more are planned in Birmingham, Torquay and south Gloucestershire.

Dr Gaffney said an initial pilot with a GP practice of 17,000 patients in Cheshire, which came to NHS Direct saying it was unable to cope with its call volume, had proved ‘remarkably successful'.

NHS Direct is also running Government trials of the 111 number in the East Midlands and Luton, and the move into appointment booking represents an audacious bid to secure its future, after ministers decided to scrap the 0845 number.

Dr Charles Alessi, a GP in Kingston and pathfinder member, said there could be huge potential for GPs working with NHS Direct, but only if practices bought into it. ‘There could be very good things coming out of this if handled right.'

Dr Geraldine Linehan, chair of the Cambridgeshire Association to Commission Health pathfinder – among those approached by NHS Direct – said GPs would have fears about any plans to centralise GP bookings: ‘There are lots of issues about continuity of care.'

Patients will dial NHS Direct for all primary care services NHS Direct board minutes