GPs: In-person Appointments - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 19 October 2021.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 2:36, 19 October 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure all patients can choose to have a telephone or in-person appointment with their GP; and what assessment they have made of the impact of appointments not being in person on the late diagnosis of conditions.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We have published a comprehensive new plan to support GPs and make it easier for patients to see or speak to GPs and their teams, based on their choice. The plan is backed up by a new £250 million winter access fund, which will help patients with urgent care needs. As part of this, practices should ensure that they are providing the right proportion of appointments for their registered population that is clinically warranted and takes account of patient preferences.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

I thank the Minister for his reply but point out that one of the fundamentals of the NHS has been that the patient has decided when they wish to see the doctor. Under Covid, that has been breached many times, with doctors having far more power not to see patients. Can he assure me that the aim of the department will be to get back to a system where the patient decides whether they need to see the doctor?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, I am happy to agree with the sentiment in the question from my noble friend, but it is important to make sure that we are not overly prescriptive. Patients sometimes want face-to-face consultation, but they may also be happy with a telephone call or an online consultation. At the heart of this should be patient choice.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, has the Minister heard GPs say, as I have, that the most important question a patient asks is the one as they are leaving—the one as they are walking out of the door? Will the training of GPs be amended to cover the different listening techniques that may be required for online consultations, so that these important questions are not missed?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Baroness for sharing her expertise in this area, and absolutely agree with the question she asked. I do not have the details of the training of GPs to make sure that they are best prepared for online consultations, but I will write to her.

Photo of Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are in danger of looking at this issue the wrong way around? Given that there is much ongoing research into clinician and patient experience of virtual appointments, that primary care consists of many more people than just GPs, and that complex diagnoses are usually given by specialist consultants, there are multiple reasons from both the clinical and patient viewpoint for what medium to choose. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be no blanket targets imposed on professionals for the percentage of appointments that need to be face to face, virtual or by telephone, and that GPs, patients and other clinicians are able to assess between themselves what is the most efficient medium to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

What is important here is that we leave it to the relationship between the GP and the patient to decide the best form of consultation. Sometimes that will be face to face and, if the patient wants a face-to-face consultation but the GP is unable to provide one, they have to give a good medical reason why not. However, we can balance that with online and telephone appointments.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

Many GPs are feeling as if they have been completely thrown to the wolves by Ministers, and even Jeremy Hunt has said that the proposed plan and the £250 million winter access fund to support GPs and reduce the pressures they face is little more than a sticking plaster and will not help, given that the real problem is the shortage of qualified GPs. There are not even locums in many places and no longer applicants for many GP jobs. Has the Minister talked to GPs about their current extensive workload, and will he reconsider the assistance needed to support our exhausted GPs?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

It is important that we listen to GPs and understand their needs and how we can support them. We have committed to growing and diversifying the workforce and boosting GP recruitment. We have also committed to recruiting an additional 26,000 primary care staff to be embedded in multidisciplinary teams. The details of the training will be left to the trainers themselves.

Photo of Lord Flight Lord Flight Conservative

My Lords, it was appropriate for GPs to avoid physical contact with their patients when the Covid risk was significant. As this abates, it is surely equally correct for GPs to agree to returning to seeing patients when they so request and where their symptoms invite further investigation. Also, rewarding GPs at a lower rate for telephone appointments and for working three rather than five days a week might serve as an effective incentive to restoring physical appointments.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

At the centre of what the department requires and expects is that GPs work with their patients to decide the most appropriate form of consultation. In some cases that will be telephone, in some cases that will be online, and in some cases it will be face to face. When the patient requests face to face and the GP refuses, they have to give a good medical reason why.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, healthcare depends crucially on the relationship between patient and professional. A recent study of Norwegian records found that the longer the relationship between an individual GP and a patient, the more you reduce the need for out-of-hours care and the likelihood of being admitted to hospital. Face-to-face consultation is important but even more important is the case manager function of the general practitioner. Can the Government make a similar study in England in terms of individual GP and patient relationships and medical outcomes, and encourage the devolved Administrations to do similar work so we can compare data?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The relationship between the patient and the GP is important, so we have made sure that choice is at its centre. As they develop the relationship, they can decide on the most appropriate way to be consulted and to give advice.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Government have consistently promised and failed to increase the number of GPs. Instead of the 5,000 additional ones promised in 2015, this year we have 1,300 fewer GPs. When the Health Secretary announced the £250 million winter access fund to enable GP practices to improve the availability of services to patients, where did he think those GPs would come from? Where is the magic locum tree? It is a seven-year pipeline to produce a GP. Does the Minister agree that rubbishing and attacking GPs is not going to attract medics to take up this profession?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I think we all agree that we should appreciate the work that GPs did during Covid; they were often the front line. It is important that we continue to make sure that we recruit more GPs. Some 3,793 doctors—the highest ever number—accepted a place on GP training in 2020, so I do not recognise the criticism.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Non-affiliated

My Lords, I take this opportunity to welcome the noble Lord to his new position; it is the first chance I have had to do that. Does he agree that virtual appointments increase the number of patients dealt with but not the quality of the consultation? Now that we are coming out of extreme measures, what are the Government doing to level up the worst GP practices to the standards of those undeniably excellent ones in some areas? Will he now encourage GPs to have more face-to-face appointments?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord for his warm welcome to me in my new role. As other noble Lords have expressed, it is really important to make sure that the relationship between patient and doctor or GP is respected. That will not always mean being seen face to face, but when a patient asks for this there has to be a good medical reason if the appointment is not. Speaking from personal experience, I have found online consultations as good as, if not sometimes better than, face-to-face appointments.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I declare an interest. Last November, my father turned yellow. He rang to get a doctor’s appointment and was given a telephone consultation. He does not have a smartphone. The GP said, “It’s jaundice, but it might be pancreatic cancer.” No other suggestion was made and there was no suggestion that he could go in to see the GP. He did not know that he had a choice. He is still with us 11 months later; it clearly was not pancreatic cancer. The idea that people have choice does not work if they are not strong and vocal enough to be able to tell the GP practice, “I need a face-to-face appointment.” What will the Minister do to make patients aware that this is possible?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I sympathise with the case that the noble Baroness communicated. It is important that GPs and patients work that relationship out between themselves. If a patient asks for a face-to-face appointment and the GP refuses to give one, the GP has to have a good medical reason.