GP professionals are set to see potentially significant changes to their working patterns under new initiatives to extend the opening hours of GP surgeries across the country.
Numerous industry organisations and policymakers have identified a need to provide NHS patients with more opportunities to consult with their doctors outside of current office hours, leading to the development of a number of new schemes and initiatives that could see GPs becoming more accessible than ever.
Although these efforts have the potential to enhance patient care in a number of significant ways, there are also possible pitfalls associated with the implementation of the plans, which the government will need to avoid if they are to succeed.
The government's vision
Announced by Prime Minister David Cameron in October 2013, the Department of Health proposals will see GP surgeries offering consultations from 8am to 8pm seven days a week, making it easier for patients to fit appointments into their family and working lives.
Practices have been invited to apply to a new £50 million Challenge Fund to set up pioneer programmes, which are to be established in every region of the country - nine in total - covering up to half a million patients between them.
These GPs will also make it possible for patients to contact them via email, Skype and telephone, while offering convenient services and tools such as electronic prescriptions, online appointment bookings and a wider choice of practices to attend.
It is expected that the first wave of GPs offering these expanded services will begin doing so from 2014 onwards.
Industry organisations and stakeholders such as the Royal College of GPs and the King's Fund welcomed the overall concept of the reforms, but warned the government that it will need to increase its investment in the healthcare sector if they are to succeed.
By allocating more resources to general practice, surgeries will be able to offer an expanded range of services as planned and bolster their GP recruitment efforts, while providing more work opportunities to locum doctors.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has suggested that any changes to GP opening hours need to come as part of a wider revamped approach to general practice in the UK. It believes an integrated and personalised model of patient care needs to be adopted, built around the GP practice and involving greater collaboration with diagnostic, specialist care, community health and social care teams.
The organisation agreed that an expansion of the GP workforce needs to be a key component of any reforms.
A trend that is gathering pace
While many of the strategic decisions are yet to be taken, there is clear evidence that many GPs are already embracing the concept and working towards implementing it as soon as possible.
Indeed, extended opening hours were being trialled in the Manchester area even before the government's October announcement, with related schemes having since been confirmed in Ealing, London, North Durham, Lewisham and Waltham Forest, among other regions.
A survey carried out by Pulse at the end of last month revealed that 57 per cent of England's clinical commissioning groups are already considering plans for expanded opening times - often beyond the remit of the current incentivised service. In fact, more than one-quarter are at the stage of actively planning these schemes.
As such, it is likely that many doctors will be seeing the results of this change in approach first-hand over the coming months and years.
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