Boosted GP practice access for patients thanks to new phone technology

More patients will be able to get through to their GP surgery for an appointment, thanks to upgraded phone technology rolled out across the country.  

Almost every GP practice in England has upgraded their phone systems – a key part of the GP access recovery plan.  

More than 5,800 GP practices use a digital system for answering patients’ calls – enabling GP teams to manage multiple calls and helping to end the ‘8am rush’ for appointments.   

During trials, this increased patients’ ability to get through to their practice by almost a third.    

 More than nine in ten (92 per cent) of GP practices in England now have cloud based systems – this means phone lines can be expanded and won’t ever be engaged.  The remaining practices are agreeing dates within the next month for upgrades to happen with tech suppliers and are expected to happen from next month.  

Extra training was also provided to staff answering calls at surgeries, so that people who need to see their family doctor are prioritised while those who would be better seen by other staff such as physiotherapists or mental health specialists can do so more quickly.   

Abbey Medical Centre in Kenilworth in Warwickshire reduced the number of abandoned calls to their practice by 90% by using data from their upgraded telephone system to identify when lines were busiest and to ensure more reception staff were available at peak times.    

The GP practice also focused on their most frequent callers – offering vulnerable patients more support from the same clinicians with their appointment usage reducing by three-quarters. The 25 patients who had the most appointments accounted for 8% of the total number of appointments available (50 out of 625 in a week)  

Latest figures show that GPs delivered 364 million appointments in the last year – 57 million more annually than before the pandemic.    

The primary care access recovery plan also set out plans for patients who need prescription medication to be able to get it directly from a pharmacy, without a GP appointment, for seven common conditions including earache, sore throat, or urinary tract infections.  

The actions set out in the plan are expected to free up around 15 million GP appointments over the next two years for patients who need them most.  

Dr Amanda Doyle, National Director of Primary Care and Community Services for NHS England, said:  

“The NHS has delivered on its promise to upgrade GP telephone systems to make it easier for patients to contact their surgery. This is welcome news for patients and just one of a range of measures to make it quicker for people to get the help they need from their local GP team.  

“Thanks to the hard work of staff more than 1.4 million appointments in general practice take place each working day which is a significant increase in the last four years and should really help patients trying to access their surgery.”

Health Minister Andrea Leadsom said: 

“Backed by £240 million and the support of NHS England, nearly every general practice now has the ability to answer multiple calls efficiently with these upgrades. 

“This will significantly reduce the 8am rush to book an appointment – with trials showing these measures could improve the number of people accessing GP services by almost a third. 

“GPs carry out vital work to support communities and patients, and I’m pleased that there are now 800 more doctors working in general practice compared to last February. Last year, 50 million more GP appointments were delivered than five years ago, and the first ever Long Term Workforce Plan will increase GP training places by 50% to 6,000.” 

Case study

Abbey Medical Centre has transformed the way patients access care following participation in the General Practice Improvement Programme.    

The general practice in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, used data provided by their new digital telephony system to identify when telephone lines were busiest and to ensure more reception staff were available at peak times. Over 6 months, the number of abandoned calls fell from 247 to just 17 a day, a reduction of more than 90%.    

They also promoted the use of forms on their website to request appointments and other kinds of care. The number of patients who used them grew from an average of 10 a day to 70, further reducing telephone demand and the “8am rush” for appointments – one of the key priorities of the Primary care recovery plan.    

A key initiative to improve access for all patients focussed on the care they provided to 25 patients who had the most appointments. Their appointments at the practice accounted for 8% of the total number available (50 out of 625 in a week) to the practice’s 16,000 patients.    

Over 6 months, the practice team steadily improved how they managed the care of these vulnerable patients, focussing on ensuring care continuity from the right clinical professional, usually a GP or nurse. Many of these patients needed wound dressing and care.    

The practice developed a whole-team protocol and approach for managing wound care, including consistent steps for practice nurses, new communications methods to support team working and clear guidance on referral options so that, if required, patients could get timely access to specialist care. After 6 months, the number of appointments needed by these patients fell to 2% of all appointments (15/800), a reduction of 75%. As well as providing better, safer care for them, the new approach freed up 48 nurse and GP appointments (18 GP, 30 nurse) each week for other needy patients.    

Ryan Smith, Non-Clinical Partner at the practice said: “The General Practice Improvement Programme has really helped us continue to improve our services so that more patients can get the care they need more easily. It’s particularly helped the patients who we previously saw most frequently, many as often as twice a week, by enabling us to focus on how we provide the best care for them, so they get the care they need with fewer appointments, which is better for them and means there are more appointments available for others who also need them.”