Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who worked in his mother’s pharmacy as a young boy growing up in Southampton, was back in his hometown on Tuesday (9) to unveil plans for an expanded role for pharmacists with the aim of reducing wait times for patients wanting to see a GP.
Sunak, 42, had his blood pressure checked at Weston Lane Surgery in the port city and spoke to reporters about the initiative as he pledged to cut down NHS waiting lists as his government’s top priorities.
Patients with minor ailments – such as ear ache and sore throat – will be encouraged to see their pharmacist direct, freeing up GPs to diagnose more serious illnesses.
“By expanding the role of pharmacies, fewer people will need to see their GP in the first place,” said Sunak.
“Today’s plans are expected to free up around 15 million GP appointments over the next two years for patients who need them most. Which means the next time you want to see your GP, you should be able to do so quicker,” he added.
Sunak described his plans as a “bold and innovative package” of measures to significantly change how the NHS works and also tackle the “frustrating” 8 am local time call to a GP surgery to get an appointment for the day.
“We will end the 8 am rush by making sure patients are either given an appointment immediately when they call or signposted to a more appropriate service such as NHS 111 or their local pharmacy. You will no longer be told to call back later,” the prime minister said.
Cutting down on NHS wait times (made worse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic), was among Sunak’s five key pledges at the start of this year.
He said transforming primary care is the next part of this government’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the reforms would “help us to free up millions of appointments for those who need them most, as well as supporting staff so that they can do less admin and spend more time with patients”.
“We are already making real progress with 10 per cent more GP appointments happening every month, compared to before the pandemic,” said health secretary Steve Barclay.
“To do this, we are improving technology and reducing bureaucracy, increasing staffing and changing the way primary care services are provided, which are all helping to deliver on the government’s promise to cut waiting lists,” he added.
An average-sized GP surgery in England (serving 10,000 patients) often receives more than 100 calls in the first hour of every Monday.
The Department for Health and Social Care said with advanced digital telephony, rather than an engaged tone, patients will receive a queue position, a call-back option, and their call can be direct routed to the right professional.
The phone system will also be integrated with the clinical systems so practice staff can quickly identify patients and their information from phone numbers.
Minister for health, Neil O’Brien, added: “Where GPs have already moved over to these new technologies, we see they free up the phones, making it much easier for people to get through to their general practice team.”
“As well as being more convenient for patients, these really easy-to-use digital tools allow a lot of patients to get the help they need without ever needing to go in for an appointment, which will help cut waiting lists. Investing £240 million in these modern tools and the help GPs need to move onto them will make things more convenient for patients, but also make the workload more manageable for general practice teams,” he added.