Figures showing a stark decline in patients' ability to see their GP within two working days are "misleading", the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) has said.
Dr Hamish Meldrum (pictured) commented on data contained in performance ratings published today (16 October 2008) by the Healthcare Commission showing the number of PCTs meeting the 48-hour GP access target is down to 31%, compared to 80% last year.
The drop is the result of a significant change to the way the target was assessed, with results from surveys of patients now included as well as information from GPs' surgeries.
Dr Meldrum said: "The report's conclusion that there has been a dramatic decline in PCTs meeting the GP 48-hour access target is misleading.
"There has been such significant change in the way the research has been compiled compared to last year that it is impossible to compare the data for the two years in question."
Referring to the GP Patient Survey report, Dr Meldrum added: "The access figures are even more confusing when you consider that a recent survey showed almost nine out of 10 patients were satisfied that they were able to get an appointment within 48 hours.
"GPs are working hard to offer as much flexibility as they can to patients, as well as providing speedy access, and delivering an expanding range of services to patients."
The Healthcare Commission's report generally showed major improvements in trusts' performance, though London was singled out for being the only area of the country in which performance for quality of services declined, with 48% of trusts scoring "excellent" or "good", compared to 55% last year.
For the first time, the Commission's assessment shows a gap between London and the rest of the country. Access to GPs was cited as a significant area of concern.
The Commission said London PCTs should be encouraged to work together to commission services, improving access to GPs and reconfiguring hospital services where this would benefit patients.
In response to this, Dr Meldrum said: "It is deeply worrying that our capital city fares so badly in this report and the government, together with local health bodies, need to work with health professionals and patients to improve this situation."
Nonetheless, Dr Meldrum welcomed the "significant improvements" demonstrated by the Healthcare Commission report, which he said was "testament to the hard work and dedication of doctors and their health professional colleagues."
What do you make of the Healthcare Commission's figures? Do you think there has been a rapid decline in appointments within 48 hours? Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"Depends where you look. We have consistently high ratings in our practice survey – 85% of patients say they are able to see a GP within 48 hours and 99% say they are able to see a GP on the same day if it is urgent. I have no doubt that there are problem areas, but wouldn't it be satisfying if, just once in a while, those problem areas were tackled rather than these sweeping generalisations made that knock the good practices and their morale?" – Name and address withheld