We need activity-based funding and a more tightly defined contract for NHS general practices

In a letter published in the British Medical Journal, I respond to comments from Dr David Shepherd and Dr Hendrik Beerstecher about an editorial I wrote on shortages of general practitioners in the NHS. Dr Shepherd argues that capitation-based funding for general practice can work if the total amount of funding was increase and better methods were used to allocate funds to general practices. Dr Beerstecher argues that there is a mismatch between the supply of general practitioners and demand for their services.

In my response, I state that that increasing the amount of funding for primary care would be a step forward. Moving from the current Carr-Hill formula for allocating budgets to general practices to a formula with more patient level clinical data would also be helpful. But case mix adjusted formulas such as the Johns Hopkins adjusted clinical groups (ACG) system have limitations—particularly when used for smaller populations such as those covered by the typical NHS general practice.

Furthermore, an entirely capitation based formula would not prevent the shift of unfunded work from specialist care to primary care, which is one of the major problems currently facing general practices and one that clinical commissioning groups in England seem unwilling or unable to tackle.

I agree with Dr Beerstecher about the mismatch between the supply of GPs in the NHS and demands for their services. I allude to this when I state that GP services might need to be scaled back to fit the public funding available. Demands on GPs could be reduced if practices had a more tightly defined contract with the NHS.

The current GP contract is vague and open ended, setting few limits on the quantity or range of services that GPs are expected to offer the NHS and their patients. Furthermore, government policy in recent years has been to encourage GPs to offer even more services and make themselves more available to patients—for example, by requiring GPs to open their practice for longer hours without a substantial increase in the GP workforce. These policies have led to higher demands on primary care.

GPs are also faced with patients expecting them to fill gaps in local health services. For example, patients with dental problems often present (inappropriately) to their GPs because of problems accessing dental services. These are all problems that need to be tackled by NHS commissioners.

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