Staff in out-of-hours GP jobs could be called upon to play a greater role within NHS care following the publication of a new official report into the current performance of the sector.
The National Audit Office's (NAO's) latest analysis of out-of-hours GP care in England has suggested that the quality of treatment provided by medical professionals is generally high, but more needs to be done to ensure the highest possible standards of service and efficiency are being met.
Results from the GP Patient Survey of July 2014 reported that 66 per cent of people rated their overall experience of out-of-hours care as very good or fairly good, though significant geographical variation was noted. The NAO also discovered that out-of-hours service providers are generally responsive, when measured against Department of Health timeframes.
However, the number of cases handled by out-of-hours GP services has fallen significantly in the last few years, from an estimated 8.6 million in 2007-08 to 5.8 million in 2013-14, which could suggest this vital infrastructure is being underutilised by patients.
Although the drop can partly be attributed to the introduction of the NHS 111 telephone service handling non-emergency queries, it is difficult to make an exact estimate.
Moreover, the NAO report suggested more needs to be done by those in charge of managing out-of-hours services - notably NHS England and clinical commissioning groups - to ensure they are being run efficiently and providing value for money.
Its study estimates that out-of-hours GP services also cost less now in real terms than they did in 2005-06, but again, the variables associated with NHS 111's introduction make direct cost comparisons difficult.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "NHS England has much to do to help secure improvements throughout the system and to increase its oversight of the out-of-hours GP services it commissions directly. It should also work to raise public awareness of how and when patients should contact out-of-hours GP services, and needs to be prepared to take the lead in integrating these services effectively with other parts of the urgent care system."
The British Medical Association has welcomed the findings, stating that they highlight the need for a consistent standard of out-of-hours care across the country.
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