Tag: Primary Care

Identifying naturally occurring communities of NHS primary care providers

Primary Care Networks (PCNs) are a new organisational hierarchy with wide-ranging responsibilities introduced in the National Health Service (NHS) Long Term Plan. The vision is that PCNs should represent ‘natural’ communities of general practices (GP practices) collaborating at scale and covering a geography that fits well with practices, other healthcare providers and local communities. Our study published in BMJ Open aims to identify natural communities of GP practices based on patient registration patterns using Markov Multiscale Community Detection, an unsupervised network-based clustering technique to create catchments for these communities. With PCNs expected to take a role in population health management and with community providers expected to reconfigure around them, it is vital to recognise how PCNs represent their communities. Our method may be used by policymakers to understand the populations and geography shared between networks.

DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-036504

Impact of GP gatekeeping on quality of care, health outcomes, health care use, and spending

In many health systems, primary care physicians (sometimes referred to as general practitioners or family physicians) regulate access to specialist medical services and investigations. This process is sometimes described as “gatekeeping” and is a response to a shortage of specialists and a need to control healthcare spending. In gatekeeping systems, patients are required to visit a GP or primary care physician to authorise access to specialty care. However, the effectiveness of gatekeeping remains unclear.

In a systematic review published in the British Journal of General Practice, we examined the impact of gatekeeping on areas such as the quality of health care, healthcare spending and use, and health-related and patient-related outcomes.

We found an an association between gatekeeping and better quality of care, especially in terms of preventive care, and appropriate referral for specialty care and investigation. However, we found one study that reported unfavourable outcomes of patients with cancer under gatekeeping.

Gatekeeping resulted in fewer hospitalisations and lower specialist use, but also led to more primary care visits. Gatekeeping may also lead to lower healthcare use and expenditure. Primary care clinicians have conflicting views on gatekeeping, whereas patients are often less satisfied with gatekeeping schemes, preferring health systems where they have direct access to specialists.

As with many areas of health policy, the impact of gatekeeping on key health system metrics needs further investigation to help devise more efficient and equitable health systems that improve health outcomes and lead to high patient satisfaction whilst at the same time, keeping spending on health services at sustainable levels.

Is it getting easier to obtain antibiotics in the UK?

In the UK, antibiotics are, with very few exceptions, only prescribable by doctors or other health professionals with prescribing qualifications. This has meant that, until recently, access to antibiotics has been possible only through face-to-face medical assessment in primary or secondary care, providing a significant disincentive to seeking antibiotics unnecessarily.

Inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics in UK primary care remains of concern, but antimicrobial stewardship initiatives are having a measurable effect, with prescribing rates falling in response to interventions. However, novel routes to obtaining antibiotics, associated with either a lower threshold for prescribing or issuing of antibiotics without medical assessment, undermine these strategies and are likely to increase inappropriate use.

These issues are discussed further in an article published in the British Journal of General Practice.

Integrating a nationally scaled workforce of community health workers in primary care

Increasing workload, a reduced percentage of the budget and workforce retention and recruitment problems challenge the capacity of available general practitioners in the UK NHS. Consequently, patients’ ability to obtain general practitioner appointments has declined. Political pressure to improve access has been accompanied by promises of increased general practitioner numbers, but with a reported fall in 2016–2017,5 it remains unclear how this will be achieved. Meanwhile, financial constraints have also led to the loss of some community-based health services, such as district nursing and fragmentation of others.

In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we examined whether the systematic deployment of community health workers in the NHS could help address current problems of fragmentation and inefficiency, while improving clinical outcomes through improved uptake of appropriate services.

Conservative modelling suggested that 110,585 community health workers would be needed to cover the general practice registered population in England, costing £2.22bn annually. Assuming community health workers could engage with and successfully refer 20% of eligible unscreened or unimmunised individuals, an additional 753,592 cervical cancer screenings, 365,166 breast cancer screenings and 482,924 bowel cancer screenings could be expected within respective review periods. A total of 16,398 additional children annually could receive their MMR1 at 12 months and 24,716 their MMR2 at five years of age. Community health workerss would also provide home-based health promotion and lifestyle support to patients with chronic disease.

We concluded that the integration of community health workers at scale in NHS primary care could represent a timely and relatively rapidly implemented approach to the workload crisis. Chronic disease management, cancer screening and MMR immunisation uptake provide examples of potential benefits; there is a need for formal piloting to establish the impact of community health workers in NHS primary care.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076818803443

Patients value the quality of care they receive from their GP over extended access

In recent years, the NHS has invested in ‘extended hours’ schemes, whereby general practice are encourage to open beyond their contracted hours of 8am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday. In a study published in the British Journal of General Practice, we examined associations between overall experience of general practice and patient experience of making appointments and satisfaction with opening hours using data from the General Practice Patient Survey.

We found that patient experience of making appointments and satisfaction with opening hours were only modestly associated with overall experience. Patient satisfaction was most strongly associated with GP interpersonal quality of care

We concluded that policymakers in England should not assume that recent policies to improve access will result in large improvements in patients’ overall experience of general practice.

The article was covered by the medical magazine Pulse.

The impact of private online video consulting in primary care

Workforce and resource pressures in the UK National Health Service (NHS) mean that it is currently unable to meet patients’ expectations of access to primary care. In an era of near-instant electronic communication, with mobile online access available for most shopping and banking services, many people expect similar convenience in healthcare. Consequently, increasing numbers of web-based and smartphone apps now offer same-day ‘virtual consulting’ in the form of Internet video conferencing with private general practitioners.

While affordable and accessible private primary care may be attractive to many patients, the existence of these services raises several questions. A particular concern, given continued development of antimicrobial resistance, is that some companies appear to use ease of access to treatment with antibiotics as an advertising strategy. We examine online video consulting with private general practitioners in the UK, considering its potential impact on patients and the National Health Service, and its particular relevance to antimicrobial stewardship in an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Questions remain about the safety of online consulting and of the working practices of some private companies, and appropriate regulation is essential to ensuring that these services offer safe and effective care to patients. This will require a carefully tailored approach on the part of regulators such as the Care Quality Commission. For example, it has not been necessary to develop standards on advertising when assessing National Health Service general practices, but this will be essential in monitoring the actions of private online general practice services.

The article was covered by a number of media outlets including PulseGP and the Sun.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076818761383

Clinical pharmacists in primary care: a safe solution to the workforce crisis?

In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we discuss the role that clinical pharmacists could play in primary care.

Primary care in the United Kingdom’s NHS is in crisis. Systematic underfunding, with specific neglect of primary care compared to other clinical specialties, has combined with ever-rising demand and administrative workload to place a now dwindling workforce under unsustainable pressure.

A major factor in the growing workload in primary care is prescribing. An aging population and higher prevalence of chronic diseases is leading to increased case complexity and polypharmacy, and consequently greater potential for prescribing errors. Nearly 5% of all prescriptions in general practices in England have prescribing or monitoring errors, while in some areas up to half of the prescriptions are prone to error. Although most errors are of mild or moderate severity, they can be life-changing for patients and costly for healthcare systems, accounting for around 3.7% of preventable hospital admissions.

Workload and time pressures exacerbate prescribing errors. Concerns about workload and access in primary care have led the UK Government to pledge increases in the general practitioner workforce, but general practitioners take at least 10 years to train and declining numbers of medical graduates internationally suggests a limited pool for recruitment. In this article, we discuss integration of clinical pharmacists in general practices as a potential solution to these problems.

While the pool of general practitioners is limited, the number of pharmacists is increasing. Pharmacists undertake shorter training than general practitioners, with four years undergraduate degree followed by one year of pre-registration experience. While the role of pharmacists has expanded beyond dispensing of medications and now involves provision of several other aspects of patient care, their knowledge and expertise is often under-utilised. Making use of their expertise in medication management, pharmacists could perform a variety of tasks in primary care, improving patient safety and clinical outcomes through optimised medication use, and potentially alleviating workload, freeing up general practitioners to deal with more complex cases and reducing waiting times for appointments.

Pharmacists have been working in primary care teams for some time in non-patient-facing roles. Areas in which they support practices include auditing for performance targets, implementation of enhanced services, preparation for inspections by the Care Quality Commission, training staff in repeat prescribing and providing medicines information for other clinicians. However, these roles currently vary from practice to practice. The widespread integration of pharmacists in both patient-facing and non-patient-facing roles therefore has the potential to have impact in three key areas: safety of prescribing; improved health outcomes; and access to primary care through reduction of general practitioner workload

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076818756618

Seven-day access to NHS primary care: how does England compare with other European countries?

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.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076818755557

Extending GP opening hours will not ease the rising burden on A&E departments

A study published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety concluded that extending GP opening hours will not ease the rising burden on Accident and Emergency departments. The observational study was led by Imperial College London. Lead author Dr Thomas Cowling from Imperial College’s Department of Primary Care and Public Health and colleagues compared patients’ experiences of GP surgeries with the number of Accident and Emergency visits in their areas in England from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014. They examined reports from NHS England’s annual GP Patient Survey, and included patients registered to 8,124 GP surgeries.

We measured levels of patient satisfaction using three factors: the ease of making an appointment, opening hours, and overall experience. They then matched these responses with A&E departments in their area to observe any correlation with the number of visits to A&E. Overall, areas where patients were happier with the ease of making appointments, which could be for example by using online booking systems, saw slightly fewer visits to Accident and Emergency departments. However, satisfaction with surgery opening hours and overall patient experience seemed to have no impact on Accident and Emergency visit rates.

The study suggests that better satisfaction with GP hours, for example because of extended opening hours, does not affect the number of visits made to A&E in their geographical area. However, making the appointment booking process easier for patients was associated with slightly fewer Accident and Emergency visits in that area. Our research supports finding alternative options for easing the burden on Accident and Emergency departments, and casts doubt on the Government’s proposals to extend GP surgery hours to ease the burden on Accident and Emergency departments.

We measured satisfaction with hours without linking explicitly them to daytime weekday or evening and weekend appointment availability. We hypothesised that although weekend and evening appointments are convenient for healthy, working aged adults, those who are likely to need medical attention more urgently are older people or those who are chronically ill and not currently working full time.

Senior author Professor Azeem Majeed from Imperial’s School of Public health, who is a practising GP, said: “The government must find alternative ways to handle current pressures on Accident and Emergency departments. This could include for example improving access to GP appointments during normal opening hours rather than spending scarce NHS resources on extended opening schemes.”

Dr Cowling, also from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said: “It makes sense to think that extending GP hours will ease the burden on other NHS services, but our study suggests this might not be the case with Accident and Emergency.”

The study was reported in a number of media outlets including the TimesBelfast TelegraphOnMedicaPulse and Eureka Alert.

Patients are more satisfied with general practices managed by GP partners than those managed by companies.

General practices in England are independent businesses that are contracted to provide primary care for specified populations. Most are owned by general practitioners, but many types of organisation are now eligible to deliver these services. In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we examined the association between patient experience and the contract type of general practices in England, distinguishing limited companies from other practices.

We analysed data from the English General Practice Patient Survey 2013–2014 (July to September 2013 and January to March 2014). Patients were eligible for inclusion in the survey if they had a valid National Health Service number, had been registered with a general practice for six months or more, and were aged 18 years or over. All general practices in England with eligible patients were included in the survey (n = 8017).

Patients registered to general practices owned by limited companies reported worse experiences of their care than patients registered to other practices on average. This applied to practices recorded as limited companies in routine contract data and to practices owned by large organisations. The sizes of the differences in experience varied from moderate to large across four outcome measures and were largest for the frequency of consulting a preferred doctor. Limited company ownership of general practices is uncommon in England. Patient experience was not consistently associated with the contract type for practices not recorded as limited companies. Across all contract and ownership types, patients generally reported positive experiences of their general practices.

Although our results suggest that limited companies provide worse patient experiences on average, some practices owned by these companies provide a good experience; others provide the opposite. It is the responsibility of commissioners, regulators, clinicians and owners to guarantee that individual practices meet expected standards while ensuring that care quality is not systematically associated with the ownership. Commissioners also need to ensure that contracts offer good value for money, more so at a time when the National Health Service is under severe financial pressure.