• All patients to have access to online consultations by 2022-23 and “right” to switch to new “digital first” GP practices
  • Long-term plan promotes digital primary care as a boost for GP workforce participation
  • Reveals expansion of online consultation into hospital outpatient appointments

New digital GP providers have been backed under the NHS long-term plan, with patients to have “a new right” to switch from their existing GP to a “digital first” provider.

The long-term plan, published on Monday, said that by 2022-23 all patients in England will have access to a “digital first primary care offer”, such as online or video consultations.

All patients would have the right to pick either a digital service from their existing GP or, if they prefer, switch to a “new digital GP provider”.

The plan shows that in addition to improving access to consultation for patients, NHS England sees digital GP services as a way to boost workforce participation. 

The plan said there was “emerging experience that digital GP models can help expand the GP workforce participation rate by offering flexible opportunities to part-time GPs”.

“We will review GP regulation and terms and conditions to better support the return to practice and increased participation rates by GPs wanting to work in this way,” the plan said.

There are a growing number of companies offering online consultations in the NHS, but most do so as an extension of a patient’s current GP practice, rather than replacing them.

The only “digital first” GP practice currently operating in the NHS is Babylon’s GP at Hand, which offers patients in London and surrounding areas free video consultations if they register with its practice based in Fulham. 

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has repeatedly promoted the expansion of digital first GP services and Babylon GP at Hand specifically. The company has ambitions to expand nationally but has, thus far, been blocked by NHS England.

In addition, the plan said NHS England will ensure that “digital first” GP practices are safe and the GP payment model did not favour one type of provider over another.

The plan also promotes a similar expansion of online consultations in secondary care to meet the ambition of avoiding a third of all hospital outpatient appointments within five years.

It said: “The NHS will offer a ‘digital first’ option for most, allowing for longer and richer face-to-face consultations with clinicians where patients want or need it. Primary care and outpatient services will have changed to a model of tiered escalation depending on need.”