Patients are set to get longer appointments with their family doctor thanks to new ways of working which start today.
Practices large and small will work to support each other and deliver a wider range of 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.
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.
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.
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.
Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England and Improvement, said: “Strengthening general practice is a central part of the Long Term Plan, and Primary Care Networks have the potential to bring about the biggest improvement for a generation.
“As the PCNs get up and running in the coming weeks and months, patients will begin to see the benefits, freeing up GPs to focus on the sickest.
“This new way of working allows us to keep all that’s best about British general practice, while future-proofing it for the decade ahead.”
The NHS Long Term Plan will see funding for primary medical and community care increase as a share of the NHS budget for the first time in the health service’s 70-year history, 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.
This builds on the increase of more than 5,000 extra practice staff working with GPs over the past four years.
Patients will also have a range of options when it comes to getting appointments at their practice, including the introduction of digital appointments.
This will build on the progress which saw evening and weekend appointments made available across the country at the end of last year, with an estimated nine million appointments a year now available at more convenient times.
It also means GP practices will be able to drive further action on detecting and preventing killer conditions such as cancer and heart disease, as well as doing more to tackle obesity, diabetes and mental ill health, and support older people at home and in care homes.
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.
“As part of the Long Term Plan for the NHS, GP surgeries large and small will be working together to deliver more specialist services to patients.
“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.”
While many of the networks are getting started today, 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.
Dr Tom Wyatt, one of Healthier South Wirral’s Clinical Directors, said: “There is so much work going on out there and we wanted to have one collective approach to help people in our community stay well for longer.”
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.”