Exclusive: GPs could be forced to open up their appointments to allow direct booking through an online version of the NHS 111 urgent care service, Pulse can reveal.
An initial blueprint for the online version of the 111 service drawn up by NHS Direct suggested patients could use a website, or even a smartphone app, to book their own GP appointments after first using an ‘online symptom checker'.
The strategy document, obtained by Pulse under the Freedom of Information Act, proposed patients should be able to either book an appointment with their own GP, or if one is not available, be directed to alternative practices ‘within a 10-mile radius'.
In one ‘case study' demonstrating how the system would be used, a mother finds the NHS 111 symptom checker via Google after becoming concerned over her young son's rash. The NHS 111 website tells her to book a same-day appointment with her GP, but when her local GP is unavailable she is given the option to directly book an appointment at a number of other surgeries within 10 miles.
NHS Direct currently offers patients an online symptom checker, but the service does not allow appointment bookings. The Department of Health is to reveal details of the new online 111 service, which will go live by next April, as part of its information strategy later this year.
The DH said it was working with NHS Direct on a local pilot of 111 online, but added: ‘We do not currently have plans to introduce GP appointment booking through the NHS 111 digital service.'
NHS Direct said the documents dated from 2010 and had been superseded by a new strategy that, to date, it has refused to release.
But a spokesperson confirmed that the 2010 plans had been shared with DH and were expected to be considered as part of future planning: ‘These options are not specific to NHS Direct's offer, and we would expect them to be considered as part of the strategy regardless of who delivers it.'
GP leaders said they would fiercely oppose any attempt to open up GP booking systems for patients to make online appointments.
Dr Peter Holden, GPC negotiator, said: ‘I'm not prepared to open my appointment book in this way. General practice is not a free-for-all. The Government has missed the point of general practice and its continuity of care if they think patients can just go somewhere else to a GP within 10 miles to have their wants dealt with.'