Patients living in deprived areas should soon find it easier to get a doctor's appointment following the launch of a government drive to find extra GPs and nurses for those towns and cities with the fewest family doctors. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt today (Monday 19 March) revealed the first four areas taking part in a new programme aimed at tackling long-standing inequalities in GP services.
New services expected to open are extra family practices, walk-in centres and minor injuries units. The first areas to benefit will be Hartlepool, County Durham, Ashfield and Great Yarmouth, with other areas also set to join the programme in the coming months. The contracts for the new services will run for an initial five years, with the potential to extend for longer.
The "Fairness in Primary Care Procurement" programme is expected to provide patients with better access to a family doctor and more choice of GP, including flexible opening hours and extended services, such as minor surgery. All local residents will have the choice to access any new services.
New services being planned in each of the four areas include:
Ms Hewitt's announcement coincides with the publication of a policy review document from the prime minister's Delivery Unit that outlines a vision of how public services, including healthcare, could progress in future. The document argues for policies that tackle social exclusion, expand patient choice and empower citizens to have a greater say on their own care.
For example, the policy review says services could be made more responsive by ensuring that they are accessible at times convenient to their diverse ranges of users. It reveals that nine out of 10 attendees at a recent Policy Review Forum said they want public services, such as GP surgeries, that are open some evenings and weekends, even if that means they would sometimes be shut during the working week.
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said: "GPs are largely providing a good service, but there are still areas where NHS patients cannot rely on traditional practices. We now want to help the NHS plug the last remaining gaps by introducing new services, reducing the pressure on existing practices and giving patients the choice they deserve.
"Thousands of NHS patients who would have otherwise found it difficult seeing a GP will benefit from new deals between the NHS and new providers. NHS patients will also see extended GP opening hours, including evening and Saturday morning surgeries, thanks to the new contracts.
"It's vital we ensure that services are open when the public wants to use them. We recognise out-of-hours services in some parts of the country need improving and this programme encourages innovative thinking about how to make NHS services easier to access and more responsive to patients."
All the four areas involved in the first wave of the programme currently have significantly fewer GPs per person than the national average of 57.9 GPs per 100,000 people (Great Yarmouth and Waveney Primary Care Trust (PCT) 48.5; Hartlepool PCT 47.5; County Durham PCT 46.5; and Nottinghamshire County Teaching PCT 43.6).
Today's announcement is another step towards delivering the government's pledge made in January 2006, in the white paper Our health, our care, our say to tackle health inequalities in the most underdoctored areas throughout England.
The Department of Health (DH)-led procurement will provide the local NHS with access to resources and expertise. The department will centrally manage the procurement process for PCTs, while PCTs will own, manage and sign-off their local contracts.
Over the coming months, the DH will work with further PCTs with the fewest GPs for their populations, as identified in the white paper, as well as other relatively underdoctored or Spearhead PCTs, to invite new providers to deliver extra local services.
The programme aims to attract a broad range of providers, from existing entrepreneurial GPs to social enterprises and corporate independent providers.
Advertisements will appear in both the national and local media from the end of March to help ensure that a full range of potential providers are aware of the programme, including local GPs.
New services are expected to open to patients by the end of 2007.