The NHS will force “virtual GPs” to open physical practices in an attempt to address growing shortages of doctors in many parts of the country.
Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS will announce that companies offering NHS patients appointments by Skype must also open a local surgery offering face-to-face appointments.
It follows warnings that hundreds of villages have lost their GP surgery amid a deepening crisis across the country, which is hitting rural areas hardest.
On Wednesday, leaders of the British Medical Association (BMA) warned that “shameful” shortages of GPs have left family doctors managing a “dangerous” workload.
Now health officials are to publish proposals to ensure virtual services can safely help more patients seeking online and video consultations. And they will insist the firms behind them set up local practices to treat those who want to be seen face-to-face.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary has repeatedly said that every patient should be offered smartphone consultations, as part of efforts to put the NHS on a “digital first” footing.
But critics have raised concerns that private companies offering such services can “cherrypick” younger healthier patients, without offering face-to-face appointments which sicker, older patients may need.
On Thursday NHS England will release new proposals to change the funding formula, to better reflect workloads of different practices. The plans will also say that every virtual company will have to set up local practices.
It follows rows over the GP at Hand service, offered to NHS patients by private firm Babylon.
The service has been running out of a single GP practice in West London since 2017 but recently expanded to offer a service to patients as far away as Birmingham. Amid controversy about how this would work, the company offered to open one physical practice in the city.
Dr Richard Vautrey, chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, on Wednesday said England would soon be facing a shortage of 7,000 GPs, as he urged the Government to reform pension tax rules which have seen rising numbers take early retirement.
At the same conference, junior doctors voted to accept a new contract which offers them an 8.2 per cent pay rise over four years.
It brings to an end a long dispute over medics salaries and out-of-hours pay, which resulted in strikes in 2016.
The deal will see junior doctors’ pay – which starts at almost £28,000 – rise by two per cent per year until 2023.
Dr Jeeves Wijesuriya, chairman of the BMA junior doctors committee said: “This vote indicates that junior doctors recognise not only the major victories the BMA has secured – for example, enhanced shared parental leave for trainees and extra funding for rest and fatigue facilities around the country; but that through a new collaborative, constructive negotiation process that has learned from the mistakes of the past, we have made major strides towards a better future for all junior doctors.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I am delighted that we have successfully brought to an end the junior doctors dispute with this landmark agreement. Junior doctors overwhelmingly backed our multi-year deal which recognises their dedication to patients and our nation’s health.
“Improved working conditions and an 8.2 per cent four year pay rise will give junior doctors and current medical students the support they fully deserve.”