GP practices should not limit access to e-consultation forms at evenings and weekends because it will be less convenient for patients and reduce patient satisfaction, updated guidance from NHS England states.
The latest standard operating procedure said all GP practices must offer patients the option of online access and patients should be able to make online requests at any time, NHS England said.
‘Any time patient access to online tools does not mean that practices are expected to respond to these requests outside of core hours, and switching off online consultation systems out of hours is likely to be less convenient for patients and reduce patient satisfaction,’ the SOP states.
GPs should ‘inform their CCG’ before switching off online consultation systems out of hours and consider whether additional support may be available, the SOP states.
It follows reports that GP practices wanting to turn off e-consultation forms at weekends and evenings are facing ‘resistance’ from their digital provider and CCGs.
Online platform eConsult has ‘delayed’ some practices’ requests for more than a month, directing them to their CCG for permission to turn off access out of hours, grassroots organisation GP Survival told Pulse.
The updated NHS England guidance also states that practice receptions should be open to patients to ensure that those without easy access to phones or online services are not disadvantaged when accessing the GP.
But physical access to practices should be consistent with infection prevention and control guidance.
It notes that changes in access to general practice may disproportionately impact some patient groups and should be mitigated as far as possible.
Previously the BMA has said it is ‘aware that there have been a growing number of concerns relating to NHSE/I guidance suggesting, and local commissioners requiring, practices to maintain online consultations and remote triage systems’.
In a GP bulletin, it confirmed that practices have no contractual duty to leave any form of online provision accessible out of their contracted hours, although it has been agreed as part of the 2019 GP contract that it will ‘eventually’ become contractual for practices to offer online consultations during core hours.
At the moment it is for practices to determine how best to use online consultation systems, it advised.