Page last updated at 10:55 GMT, Tuesday, 14 October 2008 11:55 UK

New era of GP choice 'beckoning'

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

GPs are opening for longer, ministers say

A new era of choice in GP care is beckoning for patients, ministers say.

Over 50% of GP surgeries in England now offer extended opening in the evenings and at weekends, meeting a government target set earlier this year.

And health minister Ben Bradshaw said a deal had been reached in reforming pay to help break what have been dubbed "gentleman's agreements" between GPs.

But doctors warned that extra money still needed to be invested for significant change to happen.

However, the government is convinced the two landmarks represent a breakthrough in its attempt to get more out of family doctors.

It will remove disincentives to GPs taking on more patients
Ben Bradshaw, health minister

The government has set it sights on GPs since their pay rocketed in the first few years of the a new contract which started in 2004.

At the beginning of this year, the government said it wanted to see at least half of England's 8,200 practices open in the weekends and evenings.

At the end of September, 51% were although there still remained significant regional variations with only a third of GPs in the east and north west operating extended hours.

Government negotiators have also reached a deal with the British Medical Association to revamp the way GPs are paid.

In an interview with the BBC website earlier this year, Mr Bradshaw accused GPs had been operating "gentleman's agreements" by not taking on patients already registered with other local doctors.

He said the way GP pay was structured made this possible.

It is currently divided into two parts.

There is the basic pay, which for most includes a lump sum plus the money for each patient on their list, while the second part is effectively a bonus for offering a range of extra services such as diabetes care and their overall performance as measured against targets.

Mr Bradshaw said the deal meant that the lump sum could be expected to be phased out over the next five years, leaving more money to be attached to patient and therefore encouraging doctors to take on extra patients.

He said: "It will help. It will remove disincentives to GPs taking on more patients."

He added the two milestones would help meet the next challenge of providing patients with greater choice in GP care as has happened with hospitals.

But Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA's GPs committee, said any phasing out of the lump sum was dependent on millions of pounds of more money being invested.

Doctors have seen their pay frozen for the last three years.

Mr Buckman said: "If we get nothing again, then the way the deal is structured means nothing happens."

Negotiations about pay increases are not due to be completed before the end of the financial year.

GP pay 110,000 after a 10% rise
31 Oct 07 |  Health

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