Health secretary Alan Johnson has told primary care trusts to use independent sector providers to fill gaps in services. He has also told PCTs to produce local action plans to improve poor access to GP services.

He made the announcements as part of a package of measures following the results of a survey of more than 2 million GP patients - even though the findings were much better for GPs than expected.

The 2007 GP Patient Survey: your doctor, your experience, your say revealed that 86 per cent of patients could get an appointment within 48 hours and 84 per cent were satisfied with their practice opening hours.

But Mr Johnson chose to focus on variations across the country and the 'significant number of patients who are less satisfied'. He said: 'I am particularly concerned about areas of deprivation where there is greater need for GP services, but fewer available compared to more prosperous parts of the country. I want to see more convenient opening hours and more GPs in deprived and less well-served areas.'

Care variations

The survey highlighted the persistent problem of insufficient doctors in the most deprived areas. Last year, Barking and Dagenham PCT had 43 GPs per 100,000 people, while Northumberland Care trust had 88; the English average is 61.

Mr Johnson has asked junior health minister Lord Darzi, who was made a peer last Thursday, to consult clinicians and patients and ensure the 'NHS next stage' review comes forward with proposals to improve access and the convenience of healthcare services.

He also announced an improvement team, led by national primary care director Dr David Colin-Thome, to assist PCTs and GP practices that need support to improve services for patients.

Mr Johnson called on PCTs and practices to scrutinise the survey and use it to improve services, tackling inequalities where they exist.

GPs committee chair Dr Laurence Buckman called the move a 'strange answer' to the survey's findings.

'[The survey] was an awful lot of money and it was spent in a particular way because [the government] believed patients would say access and choice was poor. I think some people in government will be very disappointed as it clearly shows that GPs have done well.'

Tackling inequality

He said the low levels of satisfaction among black and minority ethnic patients were an 'unexpected finding of the survey' and that GPs would work with the government to address the issue.

The survey found Bangladeshi patients are 20 per cent less satisfied than their white counterparts. While 88 per cent of white British patients are satisfied with telephone access to their surgery, only 67 of Bangladeshi patients say they are satisfied.

Mr Johnson has asked Royal College of GPs chair Dr Mayur Lakhani to chair a group to look at the issues of dissatisfaction expressed by some ethnic minority groups.

Despite the higher than expected satisfaction rates overall, King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson highlighted that not all patients were happy.

'Amid the positive responses, one in four patients did not report that they were able to book more than two days ahead for an appointment with a doctor and nearly one in five were not satisfied with how easy it is to get through on the phone.'

Better than expected: most patients happy

The annual patient survey revealed that most patients are satisfied with their experiences.

  • 86 per cent of patients were satisfied with telephone access.
  • 86 per cent said they could get an appointment quickly.
  • 75 per cent said they could make an advanced booking.
  • 88 per cent said they could see their GP of choice.
  • 84 per cent were satisfied with their practice's opening hours.
  • 94 per cent discussed a choice of hospital.

See comment, 'Ministers must win battle on provision to fulfil early promise'