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GPs oppose plans for central service to route patient calls to practices

GP leaders have rejected Scottish Government proposals for a national call handling service that would route patients’ calls through a switchboard operator directly to the local surgery.

The Scottish GPC and the RCGP also both opposed to a Scottish Government proposal that practices introduce a ‘ring-back’ service, enabling patients to leave their name and number during busy times and wait for the surgery to call them back. The GPC believes that this would be time consuming and costly for practices.

They argue that such services – similar to NHS 24 111 – could mean longer waits for patients and may not reduce call volume.

These views were expressed in responses to a Scottish Government consultation on ideas for improving GP phone services, mainly targeted at reducing the use of premium rate phone numbers. 

But Shona Robison, Scottish secretary for health, wellbeing and sport, said the Government wanted to ‘ensure that the regulatory framework regarding the use of telephone numbers by GP practices remains fit for purpose’.

The consultation stated:  ‘One option may be to look into whether a call handling system could viably be introduced.  This system, similar to that of the NHS 24 111 system, would see calls routed through a switchboard operator who would direct the call to the local practice.’

But the Scottish GPC said it was not supportive, as it would introduce an ‘extra layer of complexity and is likely to introduce additional delay for patients’.

Scottish GPC chair Dr Alan McDevitt added: ‘We would not agree to allow a central call handling service to access practice appointments, as local practice systems are tailored to each practice since it is essential that practices are able to manage prioritisation of workload.

‘Therefore, we would not expect a central call handling service to reduce call volume but believe it would act only to increase patient frustration due to additional complexity.’

The consultation also proposed to have a ‘ring back’ service, ‘where the patient types in their phone number and once the line is available or they reach first in the queue they are called back by the practice’.

However, Dr McDevitt said the GPC did ‘not see a ring-back system as a practical solution’, and would likely need an amendment to the GP contract and could increase costs for GPs.  

An RCGP spokesperson said:: ‘RCGP Scotland considers this to be a decision for individual GP practices to make based on their own assessment of need as determined by the different systems operated across practices.’

The consultation also proposed that every practice had an 030 number, which Ofcom has introduced for public bodies and is charged to the public body itself, and a proposal to ban practices from using 084 numbers – which cost patients more if they dial them from mobiles.

The consultation is closed, and the Scottish Government is scheduled to make an announcement this week about its plans.

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