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‘Advice and guidance’ risks creating ‘hidden backlog’ of patients, experts warn

‘Advice and guidance’ risks creating ‘hidden backlog’ of patients, experts warn

Mandating GPs to use advice and guidance (A&G) pathways instead of referring patients could be storing up a ‘hidden backlog’, experts have warned.

While a ‘fall in GP referrals may on the surface appear to be a positive contribution to [NHS] productivity’, it could be creating a backlog of patients ‘by allowing treatable conditions to deteriorate’, leading to ‘more unplanned admissions’ to hospital later down the line.

The warning was made in a report written jointly by the Institute for Government (IfG) and Public First, and funded by the Health Foundation, which assessed why NHS hospitals are failing to deliver higher activity despite higher spending on the service and higher levels of staffing over the last couple of years.

The IfG report also said that the plan for GPs to use more A&G in order to tackle elective backlogs had shown ‘limited evidence of effectiveness so far’. While there has been an ‘overall drop in the percentage of GP referrals leading to appointments since the pandemic’, research is ‘urgently needed’ into the impact on patient outcomes, it said.

The A&G pathway involves GPs managing patients whilst accessing specialist advice by telephone or IT platforms, rather than referring patients for a hospital investigation.

The authors said: ‘It is possible that expanding A&G further could help reduce the backlog and the pressure on hospitals but it is also possible that this combined with rejected or failed referrals is storing up bigger problems for the future. 

‘And that a lack of transparency may be hiding the true scale of the challenges faced by the NHS.’ 

The NHS does not currently publish data on the characteristics or outcomes for patients who have been treated as A&G requests which means there is little evidence of the overall impact of this pathway, according to the report.

It also argued that although Covid was the ‘trigger’ for the NHS crisis, the ‘bullet had already been loaded beforehand’ since productivity had been decreasing in the years prior. 

Pointing to workforce and activity data, the authors showed that while, for example, the number of FTE junior doctors increased by 16.4% between 2019 and 2022, the number of outpatient appointments is down by 2.6%. 

However, the data showed an inverse effect in primary care, where the number of fully qualified GPs has reduced over the same period, while the number of GP appointments has gone up. 

A&G has been used since 2015, however NHS England formalised the pathway in 2021 when it introduced a target stipulating that GPs use it for 12 out of 100 outpatient attendances.

In January 2022, as part of plans to tackle the elective backlog, NHS England increased this target to 16 specialist advice requests, including via A&G, per 100 outpatient first attendances

However, in November, a National Audit Office report showed that GPs were already managing 22 patients out of every 100 they referred via A&G from April to June 2022

Professor Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said: ‘In most areas of the NHS – with the exception of general practice and urgent cancer referrals – productivity is lower now than a few years ago.’

He added: ‘For GPs, the perception is that A&G has led to increased workload as many patients who previously may have been managed in an outpatient clinic are now managed in primary care.

‘Many patients also don’t like A&G as they assumed they were going to be seen by a specialist. However, robust data on A&G is still lacking.’

Professor Majeed did not think A&G has had a ‘major impact on patients deteriorating’, and ‘long waiting times for specialist investigations and treatment’ would have a ‘bigger impact’ on patients’ clinical condition.

Earlier this year, a Pulse survey revealed that two-thirds of GPs feel A&G is preventing patients who really need a referral to secondary care from getting one

And in February, GPs in Lincolnshire raised concerns about a new A&G colorectal cancer pathway, saying it increased patient risk and also workload for GP practices.



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

David Church 19 June, 2023 1:53 pm

A report claims to have “assessed why NHS hospitals are failing to deliver higher activity despite higher spending on the service and higher levels of staffing over the last couple of years. ”
I could have answered that one :
1) there have not been higher levels of clinical staffing over the last couple of years – partly due to increases in staff sickness due to covid and manipulated figures;
2) higher spending on the service has been soaked up by fraudulent PPE supply contracts and obscenely high payments to managers, board members, and lawyers, and costs of clinicians suspended for whistleblowing;
3) higher (useful) activity depends on having optimally staffed optimum numbers of beds optimally available, and not blocked by delays in discharge where social support is needed; or where infection closes wards, or makes staff sick and extends patients illnesses, and not having to keep rearranging admissions because of illness or lack of supplies or staff, or beds being full of covid-sick people.
Can I get £3 million and a peerage for my report too?

Catherine Jenson 21 June, 2023 12:50 pm

A+G by phone has a fundamental flaw that (to my knowledge) is not being tackled. The consultant you speak to fails to document their advice, so the only written audit trail is anything recorded in primary care. In the event of the advice leading to a complaint or litigation, there must be a risk of the consultant disagreeing with the primary care record, which will probably not be verbatum i.e.will include an element of summarisatio/interpretation. Meaning effectively almost all the ‘accountability’ sits with the GP. Has anyone actually measured or analysed this risk? Calls may be recorded but for how long and how easy would a recording be to locate if a litigation arises 10 years hence?