It is often assumed that providing easier access to community-based general practice during evenings and weekends can reduce demand for emergency and other unscheduled care services, promoting more appropriate care and reducing the costs associated with expensive hospital-based treatment. For example, in England’s NHS there is political pressure to expand general practice surgeries’ opening hours to progress towards a ‘seven-day NHS’.
When considering extension of primary care opening hours in England, it is useful to compare primary care access across other countries in the European Union. Despite differences in healthcare commissioning and funding, European countries face comparable challenges such as ageing populations and increases in chronic conditions and mental health problems, all of particular relevance to primary care. In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we examined England’s current in-hours general practice services relative to those of European countries in order to better contextualise the debate on extending general practice opening hours.
We found that standard opening hours in England already exceed those of most other European countries, and patients in the UK are more satisfied with out-of-hours access to general practice than patients in many other European countries. Achieving easier access to primary care services seven days per week would require significant investment, and must compete with other NHS priorities; politically attractive priorities should not to have an undue influence in shaping resource allocation.
The existence of true patient demand for extension of general practice opening hours in England is not yet fully established and evidence for a correlation between increasing in-hours provision and decreased emergency department use is inconclusive. Furthermore, the demand for services likely varies based on local demographics and disease burden; if general practice opening hours were to be extended, those regions with the highest demand for care should be prioritised.
Hence, we suggest that policy-makers in England should focus on improving access to GP appointments during normal opening hours, instead of spending scarce NHS resources on very poor value for money extended opening hours schemes.