Patients will be able to receive prescription medicines and oral contraception without seeing a GP under new plans to ease the strain on surgeries.
It is hoped the measures – which could be rolled out as soon as this winter – will help to free up 15 million slots at doctors’ surgeries over the next two years.
Under the proposals, pharmacists will be able to write prescriptions for common conditions including including earache, sore throat and urinary tract infections without needing the approval of a GP.
The measures – which are part of what ministers are calling an “overhaul of primary care” – are backed by £645m of spending over two years and come alongside efforts to end the 8am “rush” for appointments.
They are being announced just days after the Conservatives suffered from a punishing set of local election results on the back of high inflation, a cost of living crisis and record high levels of unhappiness with the NHS.
Ministers hope almost half a million women would no longer need to speak to a nurse or GP to get oral contraception under the new plans and that the number of people able to access blood pressure checks in pharmacies would be more than doubled to 2.5 million a year.
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Self-referrals will also be increased for services including physiotherapy, hearing tests and podiatry, bypassing the need to see a GP.
The proposals could be in place this winter pending a consultation with the industry.
The prime minister said “transforming primary care is the next part of this government’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists”.
“I know how frustrating it is to be stuck on hold to your GP practice when you or a family member desperately need an appointment for a common illness,” he added.
“We will end the 8am rush and expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients can get their medication quickly and easily.”
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”.
Steps are being taken to make it easier for patients to see GP – but they may feel short-changed
The government’s Primary Care Plan wants to do two things at once: make it easier for patients to access their GP and to take pressure off GPs so they can manage their patient lists better.
But by doing the former they might be making the latter worse – unless the workforce crisis in primary care is resolved.
A recent survey said seven out of ten GPs found their jobs to be extremely stressful and another found that more than a third of GPs want to quit within five years.
This recruitment and retention issue needs to be addressed urgently.
The government says it will provide £240m for primary care to update existing telephone systems so more calls can be taken, clinically assessed and directed to most appropriate treatment.
This will not always be a GP. It might be a practice nurse or speciality inside a community health team.
There is a perception that GPs do not see enough patients. But the data for March shows 70% of GP appointments were seen face to face.
And primary care doctors will tell you they are seeing more patients than ever before as patient lists continue to grow.
Another step will be to train GP receptionists to become ‘clinical navigators’ so they can field calls and clinically assess the patient and refer the caller to the best service.
This might ease some patient anxiety but it will require a cultural shift in mindset. People expect to see a doctor and feel short-changed if they do not.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting criticised the announcement as “merely tinkering at the edges” and said it did not deliver the “fundamental reform” the NHS needs.
It pointed to figures from the Chemists’ Association which reveal that 670 pharmacies and 343 surgeries have closed since 2015.
The idea of giving pharmacists the power to prescribe without GP approval is not new.
Therese Coffey, who was health secretary during the short period of Liz Truss’s premiership, floated plans to enable pharmacies to manage and supply contraception prescriptions last September.
She also pledged that patients would see a GP within two weeks of making an appointment – although she did not set a target for when that should be achieved by.
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Mr Streeting said: “13 years of Conservative failure has seen hundreds of pharmacies close and 2,000 GPs cut.
“Now millions of patients are waiting a month to see a GP, if they can get an appointment at all. Expecting the Conservatives to fix this is like expecting an arsonist to put out the fire they started.
“Rishi Sunak is completely out of touch with the problems facing patients and the NHS. He has no plan to address the shortage of GPs, or to reverse the cut in the number of doctors trained every year.
“The Conservatives’ announcement is merely tinkering at edges, in contrast to the fundamental reform the NHS needs and Labour is offering.”
Mr Streeting said Labour would abolish the non-dom tax status and use the proceeds to train an extra 7,500 doctors and 10,000 nurses every year.