General practices in England are independent businesses that are contracted to provide primary care for specified populations. Most are owned by general practitioners, but many types of organisation are now eligible to deliver these services. In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we examined the association between patient experience and the contract type of general practices in England, distinguishing limited companies from other practices.
We analysed data from the English General Practice Patient Survey 2013–2014 (July to September 2013 and January to March 2014). Patients were eligible for inclusion in the survey if they had a valid National Health Service number, had been registered with a general practice for six months or more, and were aged 18 years or over. All general practices in England with eligible patients were included in the survey (n = 8017).
Patients registered to general practices owned by limited companies reported worse experiences of their care than patients registered to other practices on average. This applied to practices recorded as limited companies in routine contract data and to practices owned by large organisations. The sizes of the differences in experience varied from moderate to large across four outcome measures and were largest for the frequency of consulting a preferred doctor. Limited company ownership of general practices is uncommon in England. Patient experience was not consistently associated with the contract type for practices not recorded as limited companies. Across all contract and ownership types, patients generally reported positive experiences of their general practices.
Although our results suggest that limited companies provide worse patient experiences on average, some practices owned by these companies provide a good experience; others provide the opposite. It is the responsibility of commissioners, regulators, clinicians and owners to guarantee that individual practices meet expected standards while ensuring that care quality is not systematically associated with the ownership. Commissioners also need to ensure that contracts offer good value for money, more so at a time when the National Health Service is under severe financial pressure.
Health systems across the world are faced with many challenges – such as rising patient expectations, increased workload, ageing populations, and an increased number of people with long-term conditions. At the same time, health systems also face significant financial problems. Consequently, governments, other funders of healthcare and patients expect more from their doctors without necessarily offering them additional resources.
As the first point of contact with patients, what role should general practitioners (in some countries, referred to as primary care physicians or family practitioners) play in meeting these challenges? General practitioners (GPs) have to deal daily with large numbers of patients, cope with a very wide range of clinical problems, meet performance targets, and provide continuity of care. At the same time, GPs also have to provide easy access to health services, show they are addressing issues such as the rise of antimicrobial resistance; and play a public health role in addressing unhealthy lifestyles and improving the uptake of preventive programmes such as screening and immunization.
Can GPs meet all these challenges? What support do GPs need to meet them? Could more be done to support GPs by non-medical health professionals? What do patients expect from their GPs? Does the training and continuous professional development of GPs need to change? How do we make use of staff from other professional groups such as nurses, pharmacist and healthcare assistants? How should we fund primary care services? These are important questions that we will aim to examine in future work at Imperial College London.
We are employing a pharmacist to help with treatment reviews and to see minor acute illness but we are finding resistance from some patients to seeing him, with receptionists reporting that patients are requesting appointments with ‘a proper doctor’ instead. How do we respond?
Pharmacists offer many potential benefits to general practices. They can free up doctors’ time, deliver cost-savings to the NHS through more rational prescribing, and improve the quality of patient care. For example, pharmacists can improve patients’ understanding of their medication and their adherence to their drug regime. An increasing number of general practices are now using pharmacists and their role will be further expanded when the GP Forward View is implemented. However, some patients may be unwilling to see a pharmacist and insist on seeing a doctor.
To overcome this resistance, it is essential that all staff are briefed about the role of the pharmacist and what to say to patients who express concerns about seeing him. This process should start before the pharmacist is in post, as should a discussion of the role of the pharmacist with the practice’s Patient Participation Group. The staff briefing should reinforce points such as pharmacists being highly trained professionals; pharmacists who work in primary care will have undergone additional training such as an Independent Prescribing Course; by taking on work such as medication reviews and the management of minor illnesses, pharmacists can allow doctors to spend more time with complex patients; and that pharmacists can always seek advice from a doctor when needed. You could also include this information on your practice website, in any induction pack given to new patients and in your practice newsletter.
If some patients remain reluctant to see a pharmacist, they could speak to a more senior member of the practice team such as the practice manager or deputy manager. If however a patient remains unconvinced by these explanations, I would let them see a doctor. Attitudes towards pharmacists will change over time and patients will eventually come to understand that they are highly skilled professionals who have a valuable role to play in primary care.
You can read my article, and also those of some other doctors, in Pulse.
Professor Salman Rawaf was appointed by WHO Europe as a member of the newly formed Advisory Group on Primary Health Care. The first meeting of all Members was attended by the Regional Director Dr Zsuzanna Jakab and Kazakhstan’s Minister of Health, Dr Alexey Tsoy. Professor Rawaf gave a presentation on integration of public health and primary care services and highlighted the role of Healthy Living Centres in the UK. He also described some possible models for the integration using the experience of countries around the globe. The WHO European Centre for Primary Health is leading the work across the 53 member states of WHO Europe.
Gatekeeping is the term used to describe the role of primary care physicians or general practitioners (GPs) in authorising access to specialist services and and diagnostic tests. Gatekeeping has important influences on service utilisation, health outcomes, healthcare costs, and patient satisfaction. In an article published in the British Medical Journal, we discuss the role of gatekeeping in modern health systems.
In the UK access to NHS and private specialists is generally possible only after a referral from a GP. Gatekeeping was developed as a response to a shortage of specialists and a desire to control healthcare spending and has been an accepted practice in the UK for many years. The NHS is under considerable pressure to use its resources efficiently, and GPs have helped the NHS to achieve this goal through managing a large proportion of NHS workload in primary care. However, GPs in the UK now find themselves under considerable workload pressures. In an 11-country survey of primary care physicians, it was GPs in the UK who had the shortest consultation lengths and were the most stressed. Could direct access to some NHS services help reduce GP workload and facilitate greater patient choice?
Internationally, there is a large variation in the role of primary care physicians in “gatekeeping”. In many countries, patients can access specialist services directly without a referral from a primary care physician (sometimes with a co-payment). Although it is often assumed that gatekeeping will help control healthcare costs, there is little association between the strength of gatekeeping in countries and the proportion of GDP spent on healthcare. Some countries with weak gatekeeping spend a relatively small proportion of GDP on healthcare (e.g. Singapore).
Within countries, there can also be differences in gatekeeping policies. In England, for example, there are large variations between clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in policies for giving patients direct access to services. For example, some CCGs allow patients to have direct access to physiotherapy services.
In the article, we look at the pros and cons of gatekeeping, describe gatekeeping policies in various countries, and highlight the need for more evidence to devise policy. We conclude that gatekeeping policies should be revisited to accommodate the government’s aim to modernise the NHS in terms of giving patients more choice and facilitate more collaborative work between GPs and specialists. At the same time, any relaxation of gatekeeping should be carefully evaluated to ensure the clinical and non-clinical benefits outweigh the costs.
The NHS is currently aiming to develop a new capitation-based formula for funding general practices in England. My view is that a revised formula won’t address the fundamental problem with the current method of funding primary care: the disconnect between workload and funding. All the new formula will do – no matter how well-designed – is shuffle money between general practices. Some practices will gain substantial sums, some will lose substantial sums; but most practices will see no major changes in their funding.
Capitation-based formulas for general practices are therefore a 20th century solution that the government is trying to continue to use in the 21st century. We need to move away from a capitation-based funding model to one based on actual workload as well as on capitation. Under such a model, any work done by general practices – whether generated through government policy, patient demand or transfer of work from specialist settings into the community – would be paid for at its full cost. There would then be no need for any ‘funding formula’. The more work a practice did, the more it would get paid.
This is how primary care funded in many other developed countries and results in improved access to primary care services. Critics of workload-based funding for general practices might argue it would dramatically increase costs as well as being administratively complex to administer. However, the alternative is the continuation of current trends, with worsening access for patients to primary care services; and an exacerbation of GP recruitment and retention problems.
This blog was originally posed as a rapid response on the BMJ website.
US Senator Bernie Sanders shared a recent paper from Imperial College London on his Facebook page. The paper highlighted the importance of expanding universal health coverage to reduce ‘avoidable’ deaths among Brazil’s black and mixed-race populations. The paper was published in the journal PLoS Medicine.
Dr Thomas Hone, Professor Christopher Millett, Professor Azeem Majeed from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health, and the School of Public Health, at Imperial College London and their colleagues from Fiocruz in Brazil analysed mortality data from 2000-2013 to determine the effect of Brazil’s Family Health Strategy (FHS) on avoidable deaths in black and mixed-race Brazilians compared to white Brazilians.
We found that rates of avoidable deaths were between 17% and 23% higher in black and mixed-race populations than in the white population during 2000-2013.
In an article published in the Journal of Ambulatory Care Management, Dr Sonia Kumar and I discuss the change in the roles of doctors and other health professionals in England’s NHS. Primary care in England has seen a slow but steady expansion in the roles and numbers of non-medical health care professionals over the last 50 years. In the next 5 to 10 years, the use of non-medical professionals will expand rapidly in primary care, with currently unknown consequences for patient outcomes and England’s NHS. Doctors in England will find their traditional professional autonomy slowly decreasing as they increasingly work in multi-professional teams; and the education and professional development of our medical students and doctors need to change to reflect these new ways of working.
A further challenge (and opportunity) for doctors arises from the rapid advances we are seeing in information technology. Through the Internet and Web sites such as NHS Choices, patients in the United Kingdom now have easy access to medical information. We are also now seeing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) leading to alternative routes for accessing medical and health promotion advice. For example, the NHS has now begun trialing AI-based “chatbots” that will be used to offer health advice to patients when they contact the NHS telephone advice line (NHS 111) for medical advice. If these trials are successful, we may see a rapid development in the capabilities and use of AI-driven health chatbots in England and elsewhere.
A recent article in the journal BJGP Open provides advice on the management of transgender patients in primary care. With referrals to gender identity clinics rising rapidly, general practitioners (GPs) and primary care physicians are more likely to meet patients who are transgender (whose gender identity, or internal sense of gender, does not match their gender assigned at birth) or diagnosed with gender dysphoria (the severe psychological distress that is experienced by an individual as a result of the conflict between their gender identity and gender assigned at birth).1 Teaching on transgender medicine is lacking in both undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, leading to a perceived lack of expertise in this area. Furthermore, General Medical Council (GMC) guidelines on the GP’s role in prescribing are vague, resulting in some controversy. As waiting times for appointments at specialist clinics are often at least 18 months, GPs and primary care physicians will increasingly be involved in the initiation of the transition process: this is the process by which an individual changes their phenotypic appearance of gender to match their gender identity through medications and/or surgery.
Some of the actions advised:
- Ensure the patient’s electronic record is updated with the correct pronoun and patient’s desired name.
- Outline potential treatment options to include psychological therapy, speech and language therapy, hormones, and surgery.
- Discuss with the patient a direct referral to a specialist gender identity clinic, advising that wait times are often lengthy.
- Explain that initiating medications is usually done by the specialist gender identity team or under their advice, then discuss medication side-effects and risks.
- If the individual is distressed or experiencing mental ill health, discuss a referral to the community mental health team.
- If the patient is self-medicating, consider specialist advice from an endocrinologist.
- Discuss smoking cessation if the patient is a smoker, or weight loss if they are overweight.
- Provide the individual with advice on websites or support groups for transgender people.
The full article can be read in BJGP Open.
A paper published in the journal BMC Family Practice discusses the management of polypharmacy (the concurrent use of multiple medications by one individual). Because of ageing populations, the growth in the number of people with multi-morbidity and greater compliance with disease-specific guidelines, polypharmacy is becoming increasingly common.
Although the correct drug treatment in patients with complex medical problems can improve clinical outcomes, quality of life and life expectancy, polypharmacy is also associated with an increased risk of adverse drug events, some severe enough to result in hospital admission and even death. Hence, having systems in place to ensure that medications are started only when there is a suitable indication, ensuring patients are fully aware of the benefits and complications that may arise from their treatment, and reviewing patients regularly to ensure their medication regime remains appropriate, are essential.
The development and rapid uptake of electronic patient records – particularly in primary care settings where the majority of prescribing takes place – makes monitoring of patients more straightforward than in the past; and allows identification of sub-groups of patients at particularly high risk of adverse drug events and complications. It also facilitates ‘deprescribing’ the process by which medications are reviewed and stopped if not clinically beneficial.
In recent years, we have also seen the development of smartphone ‘apps’ to improve communication between patients and healthcare professionals, improve people’s understanding of their conditions and their treatment, and maintain a record of changes made to patient’s medication. In the longer term, developments such as the introduction of artificial intelligence and clinical decision support systems also have the potential to improve prescribing and minimise the risks from polypharmacy. Finally, there is considerable scope to improve the quality of prescribing and reduce risks from poly-pharmacy using non-medical groups such as pharmacists, specialist nurses and physician assistants.