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Competition regulator launches probe into GP services

Monitor has launched a major ‘exploratory exercise’ gathering evidence on patient access and competition in GP services to assess if they ‘are working in the best interests of patients’.

The regulator has launched a one-month public consultation that will gather evidence on whether patients are able to switch practices easily, whether they are open at convenient times and the rules for setting up/expanding a general practice.

Monitor - which has responsibility for regulating co-operation and competition in the NHS - said it will also consider evidence on the ‘different contractual terms’ under which practices operate and barriers to integration of care.

The call for evidence comes after Monitor’s ‘A Fair Playing Field’ report was published in March, finding ‘perceived conflicts of interest that may in future prevent clinical commissioning groups from commissioning services from new entrants’ and ‘concerns about a lack of choice of GPs for patients.’

The regulator said it will analyse all the responses received and publish a statement outlining the issues identified before the end of 2013, which will also set out what next steps it will take in acting on the evidence. But it also stressed that the consultation was not a formal enforcement investigation or a review of the quality of individual GP practices in England.

The consultation document said: ‘This call for evidence is an exploratory exercise aimed at better understanding the challenges faced by an important part of the health sector at a time when it is operating under increased pressure. It is not an investigation under our formal enforcement powers.’

Dr David Bennett, chair and chief executive at Monitor, commented: ‘For many patients, GPs are the first port of call when they access NHS services and general practice has a significant impact on the wider heath sector.

‘People want a good service from their GPs, they want to be able to see their regular doctor at times that suit them and they want to be able to make informed choices about their health care.

‘This call for evidence is an opportunity for Monitor to learn about any barriers preventing general practitioners from delivering what is best for patients.’

But GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘I think it is actually very easy to switch practices and I think the reason not many patients do switch is because they are happy with their practice, as the patient survey repeatedly shows. I understand why Monitor has to investigate access, but I hope the conclusion is that there is no problem.’

‘I also think there are bigger issues preventing the setting up of new practices other than the rules. The main hurdle both to opening new practices or expanding existing practices is to find the funding to do so.’