A “rescue package” has been proposed by experts for patients which looks to “end the 8am scramble” to book GP appointments.
The aim would be to roll out the “smart” new NHS Gateway service across GP surgeries and NHS 111, utilising machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
The report comes from think-tank Policy Exchange which says there is a need to improve access to GPs by creating a “first contact” service that also works with the NHS app.
The gateway would allow a new way of booking appointments and checking symptoms. The study said that currently 86 per cent of bookings are booked through 8am calls to GP practices.
People would be asked about their symptoms and would be able to do things like order at-home blood tests and kits, such as for urinary tract infections, which account for up to 10 million GP appointments every year.
The report said NHS Gateway would also be a portal for NHS-approved health apps to manage mental health and other chronic illnesses such as musculoskeletal pain (which account for 30 per cent of GP consultations).
Furthermore, patients would be able to manage their bookings and request “high-quality video consultations” with staff other than GPs, including community pharmacists.
Longer-term, the experts said the NHS Gateway would be driven by AI and machine learning so that at-risk patients can be flagged and public health trends monitored.
The report says that the current GP model is “too variable” and produces “unacceptable levels of unmet demand, necessitating an approach which provides greater consistency and coherence to the ‘front door’”.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote the foreword to the report. He said: “There is an exciting future for primary care and we need to think deeply about how services are designed and planned – not just within general practice but across pharmacy and dentistry too.
“To provide a 21st century offer to patients, we must give the frontline innovators the right tools to evolve to meet the needs of patients in the future.”
Lead author of the report, Dr Sean Phillips, added: “There have been growing pressures on general practice for years, but the current situation just isn’t sustainable for GPs or their patients.
“GPs are doing their best, but dissatisfaction is increasing among patients. We need to find ways to work smarter, rather than just demanding that stretched GPs work harder.
“By expanding high-quality digital healthcare, such as video consultation, we can ‘level up’ areas that have fewer GPs and enable GPs to conduct more appointments face to face – particularly those with complex needs.
“Optimising the use of the NHS app can help reduce missed GP appointments, which cost the NHS £216 million every year, through simple reminders, and signpost patients to the place their needs are best met.”
It is not yet clear when or if this new system will be put into place.
Earlier this week, NHS England announced changes to the GP contract to ensure patients can see a doctor on Saturdays and in the evenings.
GP appointments will be available until 8pm on weekdays and from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays, according to the new plans, which have attracted criticism from the British Medical Association (BMA) and others.
Additional reporting by PA.