By Ian Quinn
NHS Direct plans to run patient appointment bookings for GP practices across the country, after launching talks with a raft of GP pathfinder consortia.
The organisation has already drawn up detailed plans to go into partnership with one consortium and has been in talks with eight others, with proposals to jointly operate the 111 urgent care number as well as in-hours triage and GP patient booking systems.
The trust has set out to win GPs as potential partners - despite suffering a rocky relationship with the profession over the performance of its 0845 number - and says running expanded urgent care and in hours systems for consortia is 'key' to its future services.
NHS Direct said it had already held talks with GP consortia in areas including Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and London, offering to help them meet the Government's £20m savings target by offering ‘remotely-delivered services', which it said could 'reduce pressure on face-to-face primary care'.
It said GPs had shown they had an ‘appetite' for going into partnership, and that it planned to expand hugely on its existing work with out-of-hours provider West Yorkshire Urgent Care Service, as well as pilots of the 111 service it is running in the East Midlands and Luton.
A report to the latest NHS Direct board meeting says: ‘We need to develop stronger and more constructive relationships with GP commissioning consortia', adding that it has launched talks with the RCGP and the GPC to try to win support for its proposals.
Dr Charles Alessi, a GP in Kingston and a member of one of the first GP pathfinder projects, said there could be huge potential for GPs working with NHS Direct but only if GP practices on the ground signed up to the idea.
‘There could be very good things coming out of this if it's handled in the right way,' he said. ‘Or it could be a disaster if it's imposed.'
Dr Geraldine Linehan, chair of the Cambridgeshire Association To Commission Health (CATCH) pathfinder, which is among those to have been 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 that we would have to be very careful about.'
Dr Stewart Findlay, a GP spearheading a pathfinder group in County Durham, said he has major fears about plans for an NHS Direct - run patient bookings service.
‘I'm sure most patients would rather speak to their own GP or their own practice nurse, rather than being triaged by remote services.
‘NHS Direct, as it admits, has not enjoyed the best of relationships with GPs in the past and I would say they have not been very responsive to the needs of GPs,' he said.
He added that many GPs would see the moves by NHS Direct as a cynical attempt to cling on to a role in the NHS, with its future having been plunged into doubt by the coalition Government, adding: ‘I think many GP consortia will prefer to develop their own systems.'
As well as facing its national phoneline being replaced by the 111 service, NHS Direct has suffered from severe criticism from many GPs, who have attacked the quality of its call handling, with a Pulse investigation revealing last year that nearly a quarter of all callers to its helpline ended up being sent back to their GP within 24 hours.
A separate Pulse investigation showed patients were placed at risk of ‘significant harm' by a series of failings in West Yorkshire Urgent Care Service, with its triage in the area severely criticised in a damning NHS report.NHS Direct in talks to run GP appointments