By Ellie Broughton
The Department of Health has announced it will bring in changes to the practice boundary system to allow patients a greater choice of GP from next April.
The announcement comes after months of uncertainty over the timing of the long-awaited changes, with ministers having delayed the previous Government's original proposals for boundaries to be scrapped by October 2010. But it remains unclear whether boundaries will be entirely scrapped or if existing regulations will simply be relaxed to allow patients' greater choice of GP.
An official consultation by the DH in 2010 found 77% of those who replied back change - but 70% of healthcare professionals were against. The Patients' Association has campaigned against the 'geographical straitjacket' of having to register with a GP near to where you live, but GP leaders have raised serious objections to allowing patients total choice.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: 'When we consulted on GP practice boundaries, the vast majority of patients told us that they want to be able to register with a doctor of their choice. We know that some GPs have concerns and are working to address them.'
'We will discuss our proposals with GP representatives and aim to give patients far greater choice of GP practice from April 2012.'
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'This is something that MPs have announced repeatedly over the years but a solution eludes everyone.'
'We recognise there's a problem for commuters but to actually throw out the whole system and cause chaos for the vast majority would be very dangerous.'
He added that the GPC had published a response document to the DH consultation, Your choice of GP practice, and suggested funds could be channelled from now-defunct Darzi centres to implementing greater flexibility around practice boundaries.
The RCGP also opposed the total abolition of boundaries - and said it was defending practice boundaries in order to protect patient choice.
'When people are poorly they want to see a doctor close to home,' the college said in a statement.
'We want to make this work for patients but we must make sure it works safely, and registering with a GP miles away from your home is not the best way of delivering safe and effective care.'
'The RCGP is not against patient choice on GP registration but we believe that abolishing practice boundaries could seriously affect the safety of vulnerable patients; rural practices could be put at risk of closure, and home visiting could become very difficult.'