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Quarter of PM’s seven-day GP access pilots have cut opening hours

Exclusive Many of the seven-day GP access pilot areas have reduced their extended hours in light of poor demand less than a year after they were rolled out, Pulse can reveal.

Our investigation into the status of the Prime Minister’s ‘Challenge Fund’ pilots across England has found that some have completely cut Sunday GP appointments and, despite advertising, were experiencing less than expected patient demand.

Schemes in Darlington, Hereford and Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly have had to cut back on offering extended access and Sunday access has been scrapped entirely in some areas of NHS Kernow CCG.

Pulse conducted the investigation after revealing that the North Yorkshire Challenge Fund pilot has abandoned evening and weekend appointments altogether, while in west Hertfordshire slow demand has prompted commissioners to significantly reduce Sunday opening.

The investigation also revealed that in another pilot area, only 40% of appointments were filled.

Rolling out seven-day GP appointments to all patients forms part of the Conservative Government’s election pledges but GP leaders have warned these are Government ‘pipe dreams’ which should be abandoned in favour of finding a solution to the crisis of in-hours GP appointment demand.

NHS England told Pulse:

  • The Caring for Darlington Beyond Tomorrow pilot, which started in October 2014 and involved around 94,000 patients at ten practices in Darlington having 8am to 6.30pm access on weekends, reduced hours but were ‘replaced with another service’, NHS England said;
  • The Herefordshire pilot, which saw patients across 24 practices in this pilot having greater access to GP services up to 8pm, seven days a week, also decreased its hours.

Meanwhile, an NHS Kernow CCG spokesperson said: ‘The various pilot projects have reported much lower use on Sundays than on Saturdays and in those cases the pilots have stopped offering a Sunday service to reflect longer term sustainability planning.

‘We are in the process of evaluating our schemes to determine if our projects can be sustained in the longer term.’

The investigation, encompassing all of the 20 wave one Challenge Fund pilots, revealed that these areas were not alone in experiencing slow demand, with NHS Bristol CCG board papers revealing that despite information ‘being repeatedly communicated through different channels, media, people’ uptake for extended access ‘remains at 40%’.

Despite this, the CCG has no intention to review hours, with a spokesperson saying that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that it is required’.

However NHS England said there was also examples of Challenge Fund pilots which have further extended opening hour – five in total, or 26% of all pilots – including those in Morecambe; Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire; Brighton and Hove as well as the Care UK ‘superpractice’.

NHS England told Pulse that the wave one Challenge Fund pilots ‘have been very successful overall with over seven million patients having improved access to GP services’ and that no other area, north Yorkshire aside, has as yet decided on whether to continue offering seven-day services beyond the end of the pilot period.

CCGs will be required to fund the schemes themselves after the Challenge Fund funding come to an end in September.

According to an NHC England spokesperson, the CCGs are expected to make decisions as to whether to continue funding after September, but ‘it is highly likely that in most cases elements of the pilots will be extended’.

Pulse also found that one of the 37 areas involved in the wave two pilots, most of which have not yet started, will not be providing patients with weekend access. Instead Oxfordshire is set to focus entirely on extending weekday access.

The Government has funded the first wave by £50 million plus an unspecified extension sum, while the second wave is receiving £100 million.