NHS: General Practitioners — Question
3:29 pm

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Lord Laming (Crossbench)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to increase the public accessibility and range of services provided by general practitioners in the National Health Service.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, from April 2013 the NHS Commissioning Board will be responsible for commissioning primary medical services. As a single organisation the board will be able to ensure that a consistent approach is applied to defining and delivering accessible and high-quality GP services. Clinical commissioning groups will also actively seek to improve care delivered by general practice because of their inherent interest in enhancing the wider quality and cost-effectiveness of NHS care.

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Lord Laming (Crossbench)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that very helpful reply. He knows better than most that if the intentions of the new Health and Social Care Act are to be realised, locally based community health services will need to be transformed. Will he say a little about the process, and in particular whether the users of services-the patients-will be given an opportunity to contribute to that transformation?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

The noble Lord raises a central issue that is certainly a major part of the Government's programme-to shift services in general out of acute settings, where appropriate, and into the community. We expect that clinical commissioning groups will wish to engage with health professionals from across the full range of disciplines to design care in better ways, and in particular to ensure that the shift goes on. The noble Lord mentioned patient input, which is another key responsibility of clinical commissioning groups-and a legal duty that we made sure was in the legislation.

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Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)

Will the Minister tell me the position on homeopathic medicine? I had a lot of letters this week from patients who were concerned that they might no longer be able to benefit from it, and from GPs who practise homeopathy.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the Government have laid down no bar on homeopathic medicine. The prescribing of homeopathic remedies is very much a matter of clinical judgment and we would not wish to fetter that.

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Lord Swinfen (Conservative)

My Lords, to what extent are general practitioners using telemedicine to cut down the time needed to obtain specialist medical advice for their patients?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, this is a very exciting area. I have seen some extremely good examples of telemedicine that will deliver not only greater efficiency within the health service, sometimes enabling clinicians to diagnose conditions in patients from a remote standpoint, but also greater safety and effectiveness of care for patients. For example, I saw a demonstration of stroke diagnosis that can be done remotely by laptop. This is an area on which the department is focusing a lot of attention, not least through the 3millionlives initiative, through which we hope over the next few years to ensure that 3 million people benefit from telecare and telemedicine.

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Baroness Jolly (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, what role should practice-based patient participation groups have in moulding the services that their GPs offer?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My noble friend is extremely familiar with this area. I have also come across some extremely effective practice-based patient groups that are enormously valuable, and are valued by the GPs and other primary care staff with whom they interact. It is very much part of the world of the NHS today and we wish to see it continue.

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Baroness Wheeler (Labour)

My Lords, at the conference this week we heard the growing concern of GP leaders and delegates that grass-roots GPs were being excluded from involvement in clinical commissioning groups. How will the Minister address this, and will he ensure that CCG guidance includes best practice on how their involvement can be ensured?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, each GP practice will have a GP or other health professional who will represent the practice in dealing with the CCG. Other GPs may be involved in the clinical design of local services, building in some cases on existing GP involvement in practice-based commissioning. Most day-to-day commissioning activities are likely to be undertaken by staff within CCGs, but part of the rationale for this is clinical engagement and involvement. I would be very concerned to hear of instances where GPs felt that they were being shut out of the process of development that is now under way. If the noble Baroness could draw my attention to any such instances, I would be grateful.

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Baroness Deech (Crossbench)

My Lords, the Minister will know that a very large number of GPs are women. I chaired a committee on this for the Department of Health. To increase their availability, what steps is he taking to ensure that there is proper maternity leave provision for GPs, and assistance with childcare? These two issues have definitely restricted the availability of women GPs.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

The noble Baroness is correct: these are important issues and my department is in regular contact with the Royal College of General Practitioners, talking about those issues among others. The number of GP trainees has increased in recent years, as she will know, both men and women. The Centre for Workforce Intelligence, which is our independent advisory body on workforce planning, recommends that we should increase the number of entry-level training posts by 450 to around 3,250, phased over the next four years. I am afraid that I have not got the split of figures between men and women GPs but I shall write to her to let her know exactly what we are doing to address the areas of concern that she has raised.