Tag: Primary Care

Changes in the Roles of Health Care Professionals in Primary Care in England’s National Health Service

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.

Advice on the management of the transgender patient in primary care

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.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgpopen17X101001

Perspectives on the management of polypharmacy

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.


Shortage of general practitioners in the NHS

In an article published in the British Medical Journal, I discuss the implications of the current shortage of NHS general practitioners. Ensuring that countries have sufficient primary care doctors is a key challenge for health planners globally because of the important role that primary care plays in supporting cost-effective health systems that promote equity in health outcomes. For example, the USA is predicted to need 7,800 to 32,000 additional primary care physicians by 2025.[1] We also know that the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom is short of general practitioners.[2] What we do not know is the size of the shortage; and how many additional general practitioners the NHS needs to provide comprehensive primary care services.

In its plan for general practice published in 2016, NHS England set a target of 5,000 additional general practitioners by 2020.[3] However, no data was presented to show that this was a sufficient number to meet the needs of primary care in England. Research presented at the Royal College of General Practitioners 2016 Annual Conference concluded that NHS England had substantially under-estimated the current shortage of general practitioners and how many new general practitioners would be needed to address future health needs in primary care. According to this analysis, in 2016 the NHS in England was already around 6,500 general practitioners below the ideal number, rising to 12,100 short by 2020.[4] Given that recruitment to general practice training schemes in England remains below target, shortages of general practitioners will continue in the foreseeable future. What can the NHS do to provide comprehensive primary care services in this era of permanent shortages of general practitioners?

One key issue in workforce planning is the lack of accurate and timely data on workload in primary care; and the lack of accurate information on the number of general practitioners working in the NHS.[5] The NHS does not routinely collect or publish information of the workload of general practices (in stark contrast to hospital activity, where workload statistics are published regularly). Information on the number of general practitioners working in the NHS is also limited and does not fully take into account what proportion of their time general practitioners spend on direct clinical care as opposed to time spent on administrative tasks; or time spent in management roles either inside or outside their general practices. Improving the statistics of the number of general practitioners working in the NHS and their workload would be a useful start. However, it will not by itself address the shortage of general practitioners. That requires more radical solutions than the NHS is currently considering.

The most important step will be to link primary care funding to workload through the implementation of workload-based funding for general practices. Since the NHS was established in 1948, capitation-based payments have been the core method of finding NHS general practice.[6] However, capitation increasingly looks like a 20th century model of funding and one that is not fit for the 20th century. With activity-based funding, general practices would be paid for the work that they do. Any new work would only taken on by general practices if the funding for the work met the full costs of providing the service. Activity-based funding would also allow more rational decisions to be made about the transfer of work from secondary care to general practice; rather than the current situation in which work is often transferred from hospitals to general practices because there is little or no additional cost for the NHS in doing this.

One disadvantage for the NHS of activity-based finding is that this would be considerably more costly than the current method of funding. The government would then have a stark choice: fund NHS general practice entirely from taxation; part-fund it from taxation and allow general practices to charge patients to make up the difference; or scale back the services that general practices offer to fit in with the public funding that was available.[7] All these options are problematic but this an issue on which the government urgently needs to take a decision as the current situation not tenable.

The NHS can also examine the use of non-medical practitioners and to what extent work done by general practitioners can be carried out by groups such as nurses, physician assistants, healthcare assistants, pharmacists and physiotherapists. For example, programmes that allow patients to see physiotherapists directly without requiring a referral from a general practitioner can help reduce demands on general practices and provide an alternative, cost-effective care pathway for patients with musculoskeletal problems.[8] The NHS also needs to make more services fully accessible by patients without requiring a referral from a general practitioner – for example, exercise and weight reduction programmes, antenatal services, podiatry, termination of pregnancy services, and services for drugs and alcohol misuse.[9]

Another action that can be taken to improve the supply of general practitioners is reducing the administrative burden on them.[10] This requires a detailed review of all non-clinical tasks undertaken by general practitioners with the aim of removing as many as possible to free up more time for clinical work. An increasing administrative burden on physicians is a global phenomenon and something that increases stress among doctors. Hence, reducing the administrative burden on general practitioners, as well as releasing time that can be spent on clinical tasks, can also improve their morale and reduce their stress levels.

The NHS also needs to encourage doctors to return to clinical practice after career breaks. This is particularly important for women doctors who may have had career breaks for family reasons. Doctors are expensive to train and for the NHS not to have implemented effective initiatives to encourage their return to clinical work after career breaks is a waste of the public investment in their training. Other sectors – such as universities – have active programmes to encourage women to support women in returning to work and the NHS can learn from them. Key barriers to return to work include the very high indemnity payments that doctors now have to pay (particularly for out-of-hours work) and the poor child care support offered by the NHS to doctors with families. Finally, given that shortages of general practitioners will continue in the foreseeable future, they should be treated by the NHS as a scarce resource and be deployed in a manner that makes full use of their skills and training; with caps on the amount of work they are expected to carry out. In parallel, measures must be taken to remove barriers to recruitment and retention, while we put the systems in place to measure, track, and ultimately fix this threat to the sustainability of the health service.

1. Dall T, Chakrabarti R, Iacobucci W, Hansari A, West T. The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2015 to 2030. Association of American Medical Colleges. Washington, DC, USA, 2017.
2. Majeed A. Primary care: a fading jewel in the NHS crown. London Journal of Primary Care; 2015: 7: 89-91. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17571472.2015.1082343.
3. Department of Health. General Practice Forward View. https://www.england.nhs.uk/gp/gpfv/
4. Hayhoe B, Majeed A, Hamlyn M, Sinha M. Primary care workforce crisis: how many more GPs do we need? RCGP Annual Conference, Harrogate, 2016.
5. King’s Fund. Understanding the pressures in general practice. London, 2016. http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/pressures-in-general-practice
6. Rhys G, Beerstecher HJ, Morgan CL. Primary care capitation payments in the UK. An observational study. BMC Health Serv Res. 2010;10:156.
7. Iacobucci G. GPs urge BMA to explore copayments for some services. BMJ 2017;357:j2503.
8. Salisbury C, Montgomery AA, Hollinghurst S, Hopper C, Bishop A, Franchini A, Kaur S, Coast J, Hall J, Grove S, Foster NE. Effectiveness of PhysioDirect telephone assessment and advice services for patients with musculoskeletal problems: pragmatic randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2013 Jan 29;346:f43.
9. Greenfield G, Foley K, Majeed A. Rethinking primary care’s gatekeeper role. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online). 2016 Sep 23;354.
10. Erickson SM, Rockwern B, Koltov M, McLean RM, for the Medical Practice and Quality Committee of the American College of Physicians. Putting Patients First by Reducing Administrative Tasks in Health Care: A Position Paper of the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166:659-661. doi: 10.7326/M16-2697

doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j3191