Health: Is seven-day access to GPs at all realistic?

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Political pledges to boost the NHS and create a seven-day GP system sound great.

In practice, however, there is little evidence to prove that such election promises can be met or would benefit patients.

Dr Simon Stockill, medical director at NHS Leeds West Clinical Commissioning Group, at Kirkstall Lane Medical Centre where he works as a GP. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Dr Simon Stockill, medical director at NHS Leeds West Clinical Commissioning Group, at Kirkstall Lane Medical Centre where he works as a GP. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Prime Minister David Cameron wants to invest £8billion in the NHS over the next five years, recruiting 5,000 GPs and giving patients access to GPs during extended 8am to 8pm hours seven days a week.

In west Leeds NHS bosses are jumping the gun in trialling extended hours and weekend opening through an £8.25million pilot project that is currently a third the way through its 18month lifespan.

Dr Simon Stockill, medical director at NHS Leeds West Clinical Commissioning Group, admits there is “very little” robust research to prove seven-day access will reduce pressure on A&E but feels it is an area that needs to be explored.

He said: “We are all aware that high quality access to GPs is good for wellbeing and we can make a difference to help people live longer and healthier but we can only do that if patients can get to see you. We think opening longer is better.

“It’s fair to say in Leeds west we are not doing it because the Government’s told us we have to, it might be that we are jumping before we are pushed.”

The pilot system has seen more than 30 west Leeds practices open extended hours, and around 18 practices work together in four clusters to offer weekend and bank holiday opening from 8am to 4pm.

Kirkstall Lane Medical Centre, in Headingley, where Dr Stockill is a GP is in a cluster of four practices which take turns in collectively staffing Headingley Medical Centre on weekends. Urgent and routine appointments are available to book in advance or on the day, with patients urged to call their GP as they would do normally.

He said the “early indications are promising” regarding reducing the area’s £11m A&E and urgent care spend and lifting patient satisfaction. He said: “We need to evaluate the first six months to see if it is a very expensive waste of time. We don’t think it will be.”

But there is an elephant in the room. A looming workforce crisis threatens seven-day GP services, whether they prove a success or not. It is believed that one in three UK GPs will retire in the next five years.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association GP committee chair, has called on Mr Cameron to “jettison the political pipe dreams of tomorrow”. He said: “Ministers must halt their surreal obsession for practices to open seven days when there aren’t the GPs to even cope with current demands.”

Those concerns are shared in Leeds west, Dr Stockill stating the ambition is “seriously threatened” by GP numbers. He added: “Some of the benefits of this will take years to see. Some of this is a leap of faith.”

Yorkshire is set for a warm weekend with Sunday predicted to be the hottest day of the year so far.

Yorkshire weather: Warm weekend in prospect as Sunday is predicted to be hottest day of the year so far