General practice has an uneven level of pandemic flu preparedness, with 38% of practice managers admitting to having no plans in place for such an eventuality.
The government's recently published National Risk Register stated that a flu pandemic could pose the greatest threat to national security and could claim up to 750,000 lives.
However, in a survey conducted by Management in Practice, only 62% of GP managers said their surgeries had specific contingency plans in place for such an event.
While many of the remaining 38% who did not have such a plan in place said they were currently arranging this, a significant proportion of managers said they were relying on guidance from PCTs on this issue – but in many cases this was not forthcoming.
"The PCT promised to be involved with this, using some software they had, but this never came to fruition," said one practice manager.
A Department of Health (DH) spokesperson was nonetheless upbeat. "Patients need healthcare, whatever the circumstances, and it's important that GPs are prepared for any emergency – including pandemic flu," he said.
"I'm encouraged by these results, which show that most practices are already working on this, and I hope that every practice will soon have robust plans in place. Most PCTs are taking the matter very seriously indeed, and a number of areas have purchased web-based pandemic flu continuity planners to assist local practices."
The finding was one result from the survey's broader focus on risk management. This also revealed that one in ten managers had no emergency recovery plans in place for their medical practices.
"While the majority have plans in place and need to be congratulated for their foresight, the minority group gives rise for concern," said Jane Bonehill, a member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, Europe's leading body for health and safety professionals.
"The implications of not having major disaster plans in place could severely disrupt the operation of the business, the care provided, the employment of staff and the knock-on effects within the local community. It may at first appear that a less than 10% minority is insignificant, but consideration must be given to how many people will be affected."
In addition, nearly a third of respondents (30.2%) said their practice does not have a risk management policy in place.
"If over 30% don't have a risk management policy in place, then risks relating to the entire practice operation cannot be suitably and sufficiently addressed, assessed and controlled," said Jane Bonehill. "Again, this could have a direct effect on the level of patient care."
The survey suggests that many practice managers are undertrained in health and safety issues. A quarter (24.5%) said they had not received any risk management training. Most said they had received "moderate" (29%) or "a little" (41%) training.
The vast majority (94%) said they would benefit from risk management training. One practice manager said: "I have had some fire risk assessment training, but nothing else. I feel this would help me feel more confident in what I do."
According to Wendy Garcarz, a primary care training director and author of Statutory and Mandatory Training in Health and Social Care, practices could suffer if they do not have rigorous risk management procedures in place.
"In a closed NHS market, the threat of closing a practice for safety reasons was always treated as a hollow threat," she said. "But in a competitive market, where world class commissioning requires commissioners to decommission services with poor standards or achievements, and with alternative providers waiting in the wings to pick up extra business, the threat has real resonance."
She added: "It seems a pragmatic solution would be for managers to learn about risk assessment and integrate it into business processes as soon as possible."
To read the full survey report, see:
Risky business? Results of the MiP Risk Management Survey
For more on MiP surveys, see: