Patients are set to get longer appointments with their family doctor thanks to a new collective working that will see practices support each other to deliver specialist care services for patients from a range of skilled health professionals.

Around 7,000 practices across England – more than 99% – have come together to form more than 1,200 Primary Care Networks. There are also thousands more nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals working in general practice than there were just a few years ago. Another 20,000, who will also include social prescribing link workers, are being recruited to work alongside GPs.

GPs will recruit multi-disciplinary teams, including pharmacists, physiotherapists, paramedics, physician associates and social prescribing support workers, freeing up family doctors to focus on the sickest patients.

The initiative comes alongside efforts to recruit more GPs as part of the NHS Long Term Plan. The latest figures show an increase of 300 more family doctors on the previous quarter and the number of young doctors choosing to train as GPs now at a record high after increasing by 750.

Third of appointments do not need to be with a GP

NHS England says that up to a third of appointments do not need to be with a family doctor, and the new recruits will free up GPs to spend more time with patients who need them most, offering longer appointments to those who need them. 

The NHS Long Term Plan will see funding for primary medical and community care increase with an extra £4.5 billion a year invested by 2023. Additional funding from the five-year GP Contract agreed with the BMA at the end of January includes £1.8 billion to fund the recruitment of 20,000 more specialist health care staff to support general practices.

Patients will also have a range of options when it comes to getting appointments at their practice, including the introduction of digital appointments.

Dr Nikki Kanani, a GP and NHS England’s Acting Medical Director for Primary Care and a London GP, added: “People across the country will benefit from access to more convenient and specialist care through their local GP.

“The extra investment, additional staff and more convenient care will be a game-changer for NHS patients and in thousands of communities across England, family doctors are coming together in networks which will not only deliver better care, but a more efficient use of vital NHS resources.”

No 'one size fits all' approach for GP practices

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, warned that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to resolving the pressures facing general practice, and while structural reorganisation like this can be positive for surgeries with sufficient resources, others will need a lot more support and time to develop.

She added: "It is also essential that for Primary Care Networks to succeed, they are owned and designed by GPs and our teams - not subject to top-down imposition from commissioners. We are part of our local communities and are best-placed to understand our patient populations and their needs.

"As well as embracing new models of care, we need to see the other promises laid out in the NHS Long-Term Plan delivered in full, and more detail about how the aspirations in the interim People Plan will be achieved, as soon as possible."

While many of the networks are getting started this week, and it will take some weeks or months for patients to see much change, some PCNs are already up and running and providing new services.

These include the Healthier South Wirral PCN, which is working with Age UK and has appointed a Personal Independence Care worker as part of a frailty pilot aimed at helping people in their own homes.

As a result, the network has reduced the need for GP appointments among those getting proactive support by more than half, and seen a 25% reduction in unplanned hospital admissions.

Pharmacist in every practice will reduce GP workload

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair said: “It is impressive to see how quickly GP practices across England have responded to the contract changes negotiated between ourselves and NHS England just a few months ago, with over 99% now being part of a primary care network. With recurrent funding this should support the recruitment of over 20,000 additional people to work directly in practices as part of our healthcare teams.

“It means a pharmacist in every practice, not only reducing GP workload but also improving the quality of care. It will mean connecting patients with physiotherapists directly rather than having to wait for months for a referral, and it means social prescribers helping to meet the needs of those who are lonely and connecting them with others in the community.

“With GPs leading the development of a reinvigorated primary and community healthcare team we are not only starting to tackle the pressures of workload levels but we are also enabling GPs to focus more time on those who need us most.”