GPs will be offered money to open their surgeries seven days a week and out of office hours under proposals unveiled by the prime minister today.
Practices in nine areas – one in each English region – will be able to bid for from a £50m challenge fund, with up to half a million patients benefitting.
According to a Conservative party press release announcing the plan, “ministers want to use the pilots as the first step to rolling the scheme out across the country and encouraging hundreds more GP practices to sign up”.
Selected “pioneers” will also test technologies including greater use of Skype, email and phone consultations for patients willing to use them.
The first wave of extended surgeries will open during 2014-15. According to the Conservative release it will include services such as 8am-8pm access on weekdays, as well as weekend opening, electronic prescriptions, online booking and registration.
It could also lead to greater flexibility about access to general practice, enabling people to visit a number of GP surgery sites in their area.
Prime minister David Cameron said: “We want to support GPs to modernise their services so they can see patients from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.
“We also want greater flexibility, so people can speak to their family doctor on the phone, send them an email or even speak to them on Skype.”
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the plans were influenced by a scheme in Manchester to extend access to primary care. The six-month trial in the city involves six practices.
Charles Alessi, chair of the National Association of Primary Care which has been involved in drawing up the programme, said the seven-day GP service should be seen in the context of moves to extend seven-day provision across NHS services.
“It would be entirely futile to think in terms of GPs working extended hours then find other parts of the NHS can’t support them,” he said. “One hopes we are looking at a new dawn for primary care.”
Further detail on the process will be announced in December, with the first pioneers being up and running from April next year. A “high-level summit” will review the success of the programme next year to determine how the scheme can be extended.
Johnny Marshall, the NHS Confederation’s director of policy, said it was important to remember initiatives such as Skype consultations did not lessen GPs’ workload, even if they improved the experience of patients.