• GP leaders in Kent warn patient care may be compromised by trust’s paperless referral plans
  • Concerns raised after Medway FT told GPs it plans to “switch off” paper referrals next week
  • News comes ahead of national deadline for all trusts to move to electronic referral systems by October 2018

Patient care could be “compromised” by trusts’ plans to implement paperless referrals, GPs in the south east have warned.

The news comes as all trusts in England are expected to replace paper-based referrals with e-referral systems by October 2018 as part of the new standard hospital contract.

In a letter published on its website, Kent local medical committee wrote to commissioners and acute trusts on 20 April, and highlighted particular concerns over the “imminent paper switch-off date at Medway Foundation Trust”.

The letter warned patient care would be compromised unless there is an adequately updated directory of service; a backup system in the event of an IT failure; arrangements for practices with connectivity problems; all GPs and their staff are trained to use the system; and any legal implications have been addressed.

The LMC also said the four acute trusts in Kent agreed “soft” and “hard” switch off dates for paper referrals with “no engagement with the LMC”.

Medway FT has confirmed to HSJ the switch off will go ahead on May 14, although urgent cancer referrals will continue to be accepted in paper form to “ensure patient safety.”

It follows concerns being raised around the switch to e-referrals by GPs in other areas, including Worcestershire and parts of the south west.

Liz Capp-Gray, acting director of IT at Medway FT, said e-referral is a “better, safer referral system”, which reduces delays caused by hard copy referrals.

She added: “Our local CCGs are working with practices to ensure that GP practice staff have the skills and IT infrastructure to use the e-referral system, and are providing a dedicated service desk to support their GPs and practices in using the system.

“We also have a fully updated directory of services on the system, and have robust business continuity plans in case of any system outages in the future.

“Since our ‘soft switch-off’ of hard copy referrals a few weeks ago, where we continued to accept both electronic and non-electronic referrals, we have seen the majority of referrals from GPs come through the e-referral system.”

Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, warned that patients “will lose out” if there is no co-operation between those implementing the changes.

A spokesman from NHS England said: “Across England most GP referrals are already being made using e-Referrals, showing that the service works and is safe and fast. So it’s now just a question of supporting those parts of the country that are late adopters to catch up.”

This story was updated at 13:40 after HSJ recieved a comment from NHS England.