Primary care trusts will be able to assess GP practice performance against a national standard for the first time under a new primary medical care provider accreditation scheme
The UK-wide scheme, created by the Royal College of GPs, will be the first ever test of "organisational" quality at practice level. It also offers a means of boosting patient choice in primary care in England.
Practices will be assessed against non-clinical criteria under the pass/fail test.
The scheme has won the backing of a high-profile stakeholder group including PCT representatives, the Healthcare Commission, the Department of Health, the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association.
It is to be piloted for a year in four PCTs - Haringey, Nottinghamshire County, Warwickshire and Oldham - before national roll-out.
The scheme will be voluntary, but it is hoped it will be endorsed by the new healthcare regulator, meaning that practices taking part will not need to undergo the regulator's minimum competence test.
Details of successful practices will be offered to NHS Choices.
The RCGP has already been contacted by PCTs not in the pilot hoping to set up local incentives to encourage practices to participate.
RCGP chair Steve Field said the scheme would drive up standards more effectively than by simply measuring minimum competence level.
"PCTs want to develop standards and are very interested in looking at our standards so they can demonstrate to their population which practices are engaged in quality improvement," Professor Field said. "This will help patients with their choice of practice."
He added: "PCTs get the benefit of a national standard and from a [GP] practice point of view, they won't have to go through the health and social care regulator's minimal competence assessment."
The scheme comprises core pass criteria and "formative" criteria demonstrating progress. PCTs will carry out assessment but the college will provide assessor training to ensure equitable assessments.
Nottinghamshire County PCT primary care assistant director Jon Holliday said trusts had been "looking forward to the scheme", but warned that practices' creativity must be preserved.
He said: "It's about national standards, not just local standards - and that's got to be a good thing."
What is assessed
Health inequalities and health promotion
Premises, records, equipment and medicines management