Up to one in six GP appointments are being taken up by patients who do not need to be there, health chiefs have claimed.
Officials from NHS England are working on plans to “release GP time” by identifying cases who do not need to see a GP. Analysis of almost 57,000 appointments suggests 16 per cent of cases are “potentially avoidable,” health chiefs said.
The National General Practice Improvement Programme encourages practices to “filter” out more cases, including those who only need administrative help. Practices are being advised to “signpost” or refer patients to pharmacies and voluntary services when possible.
Dr Minal Bakhai, director of primary care transformation at NHS England, told a webinar that such changes could give doctors more free time, highlighting research which suggests one in six appointments could be avoided.
In comments reported by Pulse magazine, the London GP said: “Practices have seen many benefits implementing elements of modern general practice. They have seen reduced avoidable appointments, released GP and administrative time, which can help reduce the spillover of work into our free time.”
But patients’ groups expressed concern about the dangers of such initiatives, which depend on receptionists being able to identify the cases which do need to see a GP.
Work carried out in the southeast region showed that practices have been able to reduce “avoidable appointments” by 2.5 per cent, as measured by GP audits.
In some areas, a “digital first” model was introduced, where all patient requests started with an online consultation.
A symptom checker used in some areas meant a patient with chest pain, palpitations, or vomiting, could be referred to a nurse practitioner rather than a GP. The same system suggested that children, adolescents and adults with low mood or anxiety should be referred to “social prescribing” – with activities encouraged, rather than a visit to the GP.
The moves follow a national drive earlier this year to expand the role of GP receptionists, increasingly being trained as “care navigators” in a bid to match patients to the best place for help.
Dennis Reed, from Silver Voices, a campaign group for the elderly, said: “Patients already feel under huge pressure not to bother their GP, they don’t go there for a day out, they go there for good reason.
“It’s extremely dangerous to keep trying to put people off in this way.
“It worries me that people are being made to feel guilty, or even gaslit, and told that they don’t really need to see a doctor, when sometimes you need to be able to get the reassurance of having that conversation with your GP.”
The research by NHS England found that over the course of 11 months, GPs taking part in schemes to divert more patients to pharmacies made more than 450,000 referrals.
Of those, six per cent had to be escalated back to GPs to deal with.
The latest GP survey, from a poll of 760,000 people, show the lowest satisfaction on record with access to family doctors, with less than half of people getting an appointment when they want one.
One in six patients did not get an appointment at all the last time they tried, the analysis of official figures shows.
In August, Labour unveiled plans to pay GPs extra if they let patients see the doctor of their choice.
Vowing to end a “like it or lump it” approach to the NHS, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting pledged to give patients more control over how they receive care.
The Conservatives have said Labour’s ideas “would cause chaos in surgeries” saying pledges to reform primary care could create a “black hole” of around 43,000 GPs by creating extra bureaucracy.
Earlier this year, Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, promised an overhaul of practice phone lines, to beat the “8am scramble” for an appointment.
GPs have been told that they should deal with all requests for an appointment the day they are made, with urgent access on the same day, and all appointments within two weeks. Latest published figures show more than five million patients a month waiting longer than the two weeks.
The NHS audit found that 4.5 per cent of GP appointments could have been handled by another member of staff at the same practice, such as a nurse practitioner, while 3 per cent related to an administrative matter.
In addition, 7.4 per cent of GP appointments could have been dealt with by another organisation such as a pharmacy, the audit found, with 1.5 per cent falling into the category of “other”.
An NHS spokesman said: “GP teams are seeing and treating record numbers of people and everyone who needs a GP should be able to get an appointment.
“GP teams are being specially trained and can direct patients to the right health professional in the team or other local service for their needs, such as community pharmacy, which is better for patients as well as maximising the use of GP time to support patients who need them.”