Patients will be able to contact their general practice more easily and quickly - and find out exactly how their request will be handled on the day they call - as part of a major multi-million-pound overhaul of primary care, the government and NHS will announce this week.
Practices across the UK will also be given £240 million this year to embrace the latest technology, replacing old analog phones with modern systems so patients never get engaged tones and easy-to-use online tools to ensure patients get the care they need as soon as possible.
This will mean when patients contact their practice online or over the phone, they will know on the day they make contact how their query will be managed, rather than being told to call back later. If their need is urgent, they will be assessed and given appointments on the same day. If it is not urgent, appointments should be offered within two weeks, or patients will be referred to NHS 111 or a local pharmacy.
Primary care is the way most people access the NHS, and the government is committed to modernizing the way patients contact their GP surgery - improving satisfaction and delivering on the Prime Minister's promise to cut waiting lists.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay will announce a major expansion of the role of receptionists to become expert "care navigators" - whose job it is to gather information, to make sure patients are directed to the most suitable healthcare professional and to simplify and streamline the process.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said:
We are already making real progress with 10% more GP appointments happening every month compared to before the pandemic.
I want to make sure people receive the right support when they contact their general practice and bring an end to the 8am scramble for appointments.
To do this we are improving technology and reducing bureaucracy, increasing staffing and changing the way primary care services are provided, which are all helping to deliver on the government's promise to cut waiting lists."
Minister for Health Neil O'Brien said:
Where GPs have already moved over to these new technologies we see they free up the phones, making it much easier for people to get through to their general practice team.
As well as being more convenient for patients, these really easy to use digital tools allow a lot of patients to get the help they need without ever needing to go in for an appointment, which will help cut waiting lists.
Investing £240 million in these modern tools and the help GPs need to move onto them will make things more convenient for patients, but also make the workload more manageable for general practice teams."
An average-sized practice of 10,000 patients often receives more than 100 calls in the first hour every Monday.
With advanced digital telephony, rather than an engaged tone patients will receive a queue position, a call back option and their call can be directly routed to the right professional. The phone system will also be integrated with the clinical systems so practice staff can quickly identify patients and their information from phone numbers.
Practices that have invested in modern online booking and messaging systems find they help free up phones for those who prefer to call, while giving patients a convenient way to get the help they need.
As well as helping patients to make contact the government is supporting staff in dealing with the calls. Working with NHS England the government will fund 6,500 care navigator training places - that is one member of staff per practice who can then pass on the training to colleagues.
Care navigators will help assess, prioritize, respond and assist. They can help make sure those who want to see a named GP or preferred member of staff can do while those who are happy to see a duty doctor can also do so.
Care navigators will direct patients to other professionals within the general practice or other medical professionals such as community pharmacists who can best meet the needs of the patients. Successful care navigation can help direct 40% of requests more effectively and speeds up appointments for those who need them.
The government will provide primary care networks and GP practices with the funding and support required to make the changes including through integrated care boards.
Dr Amanda Doyle, NHS England, National Director Primary Care and Community Services, said:
Produced by the NHS, this plan will make it easier for patients to access the care they need.
GPs and their teams are already delivering half a million more appointments a week than before the Covid pandemic.
However, we know staffing needs to be put on a sustainable footing so we are also working with Government to publish a long term workforce plan."