With the publication in this week’s BMJ of the Tele-First study into the telephone first model of general practice, you would expect me to read carefully and respond. So here are the headlines:
- 65% of patients report being phoned by a GP in less than one hour.
- 56% of patients find it more convenient vs 22% less convenient
- Large improvement in length of time to be seen, 20% move in GPPES survey.
At a time when we are told repeatedly that patients are having to wait ever longer to see a GP, often measured in weeks, these are quite astonishing figures, all quoted direct from the report. But, dear reader, these are not the headlines you have seen in Pulse or the BMJ Editorial are they? Studies, and the interpretation of studies, are political. We have an interest, and so does everyone else.
Therefore the first thing I want you to do is read the full text so you can make your own mind up independent of headline writers. It is much more detailed than the print version, framed by an angry looking GP model and a scared looking patient model, giving more space to a commentary piece than the actual study.
There is much to absorb but for brevity I’ll comment on the summary section.
What is already known on this topic
- GPs are struggling with the current demands on general practice and looking for effective ways to manage patient demand
- Claims have been made, reproduced in NHS England literature, that a telephone first approach, in which all patients wanting to see a GP are asked to speak to a GP on the phone first, results in major cost savings for primary care and reductions in secondary care costs
We do not make those claims, but you can still read them here on the home page of PPC Doctor First, a 20% drop in A&E and £30,000 saving per GP per annum. I’m grateful to the authors for proving these false. *
What this study adds
- In general practice, many problems can be dealt with by a GP on the phone
- The new telephone first approach resulted in more phone calls, fewer face to face consultations, and, on average, more time spent consulting
- There was wide variation between individual practices, including large increases and large decreases in workload after adoption of the telephone first approach
- There was no evidence that the telephone first approach would reduce costs of secondary care
In a way it is disappointing to see no secondary care effect, but not unexpected and unless the evidence changes, that is what we accept.
But what has really got GPs aerated is this finding of “more time spent consulting”. This was derived from data sent by us to the study, which we have not used to make a calculation on workload for several reasons: much of it is missing (and as the authors state, had to be imputed), it shows wide variation, and it cannot account for total workload. Let’s consider:
Workload = demand/efficiency + non-clinical work + waste
We do not have a reliable way to measure the total, and given that the study used only one of our three datasets, I don’t see how they can make this assessment. Just one example: many practices have told us of the drop in home visits, each one saving the time for many surgery consultations. This is not measured. It may be a good thing to have more recorded time consulting, if less time is wasted. Not only does this finding seem to me unsafe, it also brings us back to the question of purpose, for the study and indeed for the NHS.
If the purpose is to minimise GP workload, we can do so very simply: design the working day so you see 4 or 5 patients in the morning, take a good lunch and a nap, then spend a little time in personal reflection and development before heading home., purpose achieved.
I’ve worked with a lot of very hard working GPs and they would not be satisfied with that purpose. No, the purpose of general practice and therefore the purpose of change must be to improve patient care.
There’s a missing term in the workload formula, and that is “unmet need”. Behind those words lies untold suffering and frustration of patients, heard perhaps by a receptionist (one wrote last week, “I dread having to tell the patients there’s nothing left”) while others do not even get through on the phone. This is the dirty secret of general practice, and over many years we’ve measured it in practices we’ve helped, variable around an average of 14%.
One in seven patiients is told to go away. Although we offered this data to the study team, they didn’t want it and took no account of it.
Their figures cannot distinguish between the workload of one GP helping 30 patients in a day, who had all waited two weeks, and another helping 40 patients in a day, on the same day they called. It could be life changing for those 10 patients, indeed all 40 of them for not having to suffer two weeks of disease, pain, or anxiety.
Both GPs may have equal skill and compassion, but the difference comes from efficiency.
By framing the question on workload rather than efficiency, the study misses a huge opportunity. It offers no help on how to become more efficient, and while it found wide variation in performance, the data were munged into averages rather than investigating in detail why the best ones worked better.
I’ll tell you a secret: we’re in this for the patients. To help the patients we have to help the GPs be more efficient. There is never a final answer to the method, there is only “the best we know for now, while we look for the still better way”.
We’ve helped around a million patients so far, with another 50,000 to be added in the next month. and as telephone triage (done well) is more efficient than pre-booked face to face, digital triage is already proving to be the next step. Sometimes we fail, but we press on.
Every day over 100,000 patients are told by practice receptionists “Nothing left, call another day”. Not on any basis of clinical need, just because the GPs have no slots.
It’s my personal mission to eliminate that phrase. What’s yours?
* The 20% A&E effect came from my 2011 study, based on pioneer practices with up to 10 years running the model, and promising at the time. The figure was copied by Dr First but never attributed. We could not show that the effect was reproducible, and therefore stopped making any specific claim about A&E 3 years ago. £30,000 saving? We make no such claims, although if GPs tell us about savings we are happy to report them. Why did NHS England swallow this?
Hypothesis: efficient operation of primary care depends on clinical triage of all demand, to optimise the use of scarce consulting resource – GP time.
The faster and simpler the system, the more patients will co-operate.
Who does what, when and how?
Patient “I need help…” Make it easy to provide enough detail for triage. Online, anytime.
Reception ”I’ll assign you to a clinician, unless I can help you myself” (within minutes, verify patient, choose clinician)
GP “I’ll work out how to help, usually phone, may see you, send a message, or refer” (take seconds, within minutes, from online entry)
Consult & complete – precisely appropriate for the patient and episode.
Presented at EFPC European Forum for Primary Care, Annual Conference Porto 24-26 September 2017
Download the poster here:
A quick note with exciting news, we’ve just had our poster published at the Society of Academic Primary Care SAPC Annual Scientific Meeting in Warwick.
askmyGP has now passed over 50,000 patient episodes, 4,000 of them on the all new platform launched just two months ago.
The case study with Concord Medical Centre, Bristol, is here:
What took demand to 30% online? In a nutshell, it’s:
– Personal (“Hello, I’m Dr Bradley…)
– Universal (all patients, all problems)
– Responsive (we’ll get back within the hour)
– Simple (“Easy to use” main theme of feedback)
We took the decision in version 2 to take OUT the clever technology we’d put in v1.
It’s much simpler, with the aim of putting patients in faster, easier, touch with their GP, and vice versa. It builds trust by allowing patients to express exactly what they mean.
The result? Positive feedback has shot up, both from patients and GPs.
Dr Simon Bradley comments:
“The thought that goes into putting something into writing often helps the patient to have reflected on their problem prior to initiating a request.
Then for the clinician to have reflected on the request and reviewed relevant elements of the record means we can be more aligned with the patient’s agenda.
Online communication is asynchronous which allows both patient and practice to use their time more effectively.”
Aha. Time. The only absolutely finite resource.
Time for recreation too – enjoy the weekend.
Download pdf: What makes patients use online consultations?
Summer may be a-coming in, we will see beaches and I promised to take a look at that pattern of patient tidal flow.
GP demand is like a rolling wave. Or quite like a skijump, or one side of a volcano, but let’s stay with the wave for the purposes of surfing.
We’ve analysed hundreds of practices and when you allow patients call any time in working hours the pattern is strikingly similar across the board. The calls start high when you open at 8, stay there for a short time and from 9 fall rapidly through the morning. They flatten out through the middle of the day and early afternoon, then tail off from around four down to very little by 6.
Aha. So how to respond?
- Tidal deniers: “We hold our partnership meetings at 8.30 on a Monday morning. Works well for us as everyone is in, perfect start to the week”. If only they spent five minutes in reception.
- Tidal self harmers: “Sorry, what do you expect, it’s already 8.17 and there’s nothing left. Call back tomorrow but make it early I should to be sure of an appointment” Funny how every day is the same.
- Dudes: we’re ready, on it as the demand comes in, phone or online first response, deal with it now, decide to see some later when incoming is quieter. Stay on the wave, take a break, mentally prepare for face to faces, back for next session. It’s a full on day, but we feel in control.
Someone accused me on Twitter this week of common sense and I strenuously deny all charges, but really, is it that hard? So why do patients wait an average of 5 days to get help from their GP? And why do GPs end the day shredded?
One practice we’re working with has hit a median response time by a GP to any patient demand of 17 minutes. Within five weeks of launch. 17 minutes. Surfin’
askmyGP & GP Access Ltd
PS Delighted to see that Matthew Swindells, new Director of Operations at NHS England, is starting to call out NHS111 for the monstrous waste that it is. I wrote this on the launch of 111 in 2013. Sad to say that it’s taken a change of personnel to admit the truth, while those four years have seen hundreds of £m wasted, never mind the frustrations for patients, GPs and staff. So will he actually do the necessary?
This week’s blog was written by a patient to his local paper, and I loved it so much I’ve copied it here in full:
My local doctor’s surgery, Audley Mills in Rayleigh, has changed its appointment system.
When you call for an appointment you will be called back by a doctor. The doctor will then either deal with your query over the phone or ask you to come in to the surgery.
I used the system today, and I must say that it worked for me. I was asked to come in, and got to see a doctor within minutes. The waiting room was almost empty, and the consultation did not feel rushed at all.
I expect the majority of queries can be dealt with quite adequately over the phone, and doing so allows for quicker and less rushed appointments for patients who really need a face-to-face meeting with a doctor.
I was very impressed.
Simon Bishop, Rayleigh
What I most love about his letter, sent the day after Audley Mills launch on June 12th, was this phrase “the consultation did not feel rushed at all” It recalled the fourth principle of consultations from John Launer’s article last week – unhurried.
Like you, I’m suspicious of anecdotes unless they illustrate a body of evidence. But here’s the survey data from Audley Mills week one: they called 46 patients at random, of whom 39 said the new system was better, 5 same and 2 worse. A staggering 85% say better, and only 21 of the 46 had seen the doctor.
I spoke yesterday to lead GP Dr Luke Whiting who said Monday had been very busy but demand had tailed off over the week and now they had free slots, unused. It’s so predictable. We allow 15% for random variation in our plans, so it’s not uncommon to have free time.
Luke: “We’ve been tearing our hair out for years. Now suddenly the place feels relaxed, the building is so quiet, we’re on top of the work.”
So what made the difference at Audley Mills? Why could they do this when others all around are still tearing their hair out? Are they larger, smaller, younger, older, more urban, more rural, whatever, than the rest?
No, just one thing: they made a decision.
PS The data shows no change in average face to face consultation time before and after launch. But the range increases as GPs have more flexibility to give the appropriate time to each patient.
PPS I’ve been speaking at NHS England and CCG events in the last month. There is no doubt about the appetite for change. What’s needed is evidence, method and frankly, a sense of urgency.
“It’s lovely not being shouted at 24/7”
Receptionist Karen’s first comment to me was both startling and predictable. Her Somerset practice launched their demand led system two weeks ago, and since then she has been able to help every patient. Three weeks ago she and her colleagues were turning away one in five patients (we measured it) but they have moved straight into the super league, with a median response time from the GPs of 26 minutes.
The GPs love it too, but I find they are more buttoned up and try to find at least one thing to grumble about. “I’ll be home early so will have to put the kids to bed,” said one.
That didn’t take too long did it, or seem so hard? It was four weeks of preparation, to abolish the old system and start the new.
So why aren’t we hearing about this from the commentariat? I get a stream of dismal blogs from Nuffield/King’s Fund/Health Foundation (why don’t they just merge, it would save all those personnel transfer costs?) wringing their hands about how hard it is to change anything.
Another one today on General Practice at Scale, is it working? Yawn. Fiddling with structures, the obsession of policy makers who should get out more and ask “WHAT WORKS?”. Instead we’re told,
“Motivations… centred on a desire to offer better access…
Most strikingly, what the survey revealed was just how long enacting change can take – at least two years to even begin to achieve what they’d set out to do.”
Useless. And no measure of performance is even offered. This is why Deming said that motivation is fine but worthless on its own. The question is “By what method?”
Method is central to our work and it’s so repeatable now that the outcome is binary: either the practice decides to change, and it all happens within a month, or it doesn’t, and nothing much happens at all, ever.
But method is not static, we are continually learning and having to adapt. Another Midlands practice told me yesterday they are learning lots from having a GP in reception, sometimes even taking calls from patients, and their performance is rocketing while demand is falling.
I’m not going to call it a trend yet, but if you are a demand led practice you’re probably enjoying the sunshine dividend today. Have a great weekend.
PS Learning a lot from askmyGP users too, with over 1200 episodes and 130 patient feedbacks on the new system, 55 suggestions from staff, a terrific response. We’ve already put dozens into service and next week’s plans include one for low using practices (they will get an email notification of an online demand) and one very much anticipated by high users.
GPs have been emailing patients because it’s convenient – but it’s not secure and poorly controlled for IG and patient safety. From next week those on the Transform programme will be able to securely message patients in a two way conversation. It’s going to be another huge time saver. Will let you know how it goes.
Poster presented at FMLM Belfast conference, 9 March 2017. Download pdf here
“When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?” There’s a lengthy discussion on who said it first, perhaps not Keynes or Churchill, but never mind.
I’ve been saying that there is no evidence of patients being diverted from seeing their GP through online help, and now that’s changed.
Our evidence is from two hard tests to see whether askmyGP can reduce demand. The first is to measure overall demand (by analysing all consultation records for practices in time series over months) and we’ve seen no measurable change up or down, a valuable finding in itself. Demand doesn’t increase even when 20% of it now arrives online. Nor have we seen overall reductions.
The second test is at the patient level, where we offer symptom specific NHS Choices information to patients. Many view this and find it helpful, but very few are deflected from consulting: we measure this continually, so far only 30 out of 38,000 episodes.
Then this Dutch study arrives, high quality evidence of 12% overall demand reduction. Enormously interesting, because the Dutch registered list and capitated system is similar to ours in the NHS (though insurance funded). The reduction was over 2 years and the result not only of the technology but also a complex intervention of GPs advising and encouraging their patients to use it.
But the technology matters too. It’s notable that while NHS Choices is also very popular, there is no evidence of demand reduction as achieved by thuisarts.nl. It was created by NHG, the Dutch equivalent of RCGP. The differences between the two websites may appear subtle, but the fact is, one of them works.
But reducing demand has been an aspiration, subject to finding something that works – perhaps we are now a little closer.
Some of you reading this may be in a position of power and influence. With these new facts, I know what I’d do.
Dealing as I do with GPs week after week I admit to a twinge of envy that I will never personally be able to help a patient as a doctor, while they get the privilege every day.
But we get a little something from the feedback patients leave on askmyGP, and I wanted to share with you everything that’s come in the last 24 hours. Each one carries a story, and they are typical of recurring themes over the last two years.
They range from the simple, for which I’m grateful:
“Excellent facility.” male 54
to the more specific:
“Well structured questions to analyse symptoms etc.” male 62, sciatica
solving a real problem for many stressed parents:
“Much better as can use at any time and also don’t have 2 keep trying 2 get through on the phone in the morning” Parent of 3 year old, earache
and towards the other end of a lifespan, relief about the:
“Option for relatives of elderly patients.” on behalf of a 96 year old
Improving access without increasing surgery hours, and the importance of rapid response:
“This system worked well for us the first time we used it. We emailed out of hours but got a fast response as soon as the surgery opened.” male 81
Lastly something rather special, helping the clinical encounter itself by changing the channel:
“I get nervous talking about personal matters – this way the Dr can see what they are dealing with prior to speaking with me” female 44.
Perhaps we have shared in the privilege of helping this unknown lady. Being able to reflect and write down the problem is quite a common theme. There is lots of patient engagement online with 15% leaving feedback, over 5,600 items so far and we keep a running summary here.
The desire to help one another runs deep in the human psyche, and I think that is why, above all the cacophony of crisis, the long term studies of job satisfaction always feature GPs near the top.
Don’t talk yourselves down, and don’t dwell on the latest “GP-as-victim” blog in the columns of Pulse. Margaret McCartney writes powerfully in this week’s BMJ on the intrinsic value of long term relationships which GPs enjoy with their patients, unique not only among the professions but specific to general practitioners.
Treasure it, enjoy it, guard it.
PS Many more have enquired since last week about how to get Resilience funding for their practice to improve service and workload. We are doing our best but it seems time is tight, so please get in touch soonest.
PPS I’m a big fan of Julian Patterson’s NHS Networks blog and this week’s consultation on STPs is a must. Light up a grey day!
Method: Telephone GP practice between 11am and midday today 23/12/16 and ask receptionist how busy they are, compared with an average Friday.
Sample: 10 practices throughout UK, 6 England, 2 NI, 1 Scotland, 1 Wales, mix of urban/rural/socio-economic populations. All operate a demand led system, GP telephone response, no pre-booked face to face appts.
Results: 2 say about normal, 2 somewhat quieter, 6 much quieter.
Analysis: Someone please help me with the p-value.
Discussion: Qualitative comments added to the findings, several echoing the view “It’s going really really well here, the patients are very happy, and so are the doctors, so we are too”. “We were expecting a rush, but it’s been quiet all week.”
None of the respondents admitted to wearing a silly hat, though one said she would be this afternoon.
One referred me to the practice manager, who said they were so quiet they’d sent a doctor to help another local practice. (Kidderminster Church St).
Summary: er, most of them are having a really quiet day.
* not commissioned, not peer reviewed, non-RCT. The author declares a COI.
Thank you for all your contributions this year and wishing you the most peaceful Christmas
PS Learning is one of the joys of the break and Nuffield Trust has put together a wonderful reading list. Delayed half an hour in Belfast last Tuesday I found Matthew Syed’s “Black Box Thinking” – yes, airports can enrich the mind!
And the relevance to our study? Every day we are bombarded with messages of stress, overload, unsustainable soaring tsunamis of demand. So the finding that today is quiet falsifies the dominant view about demand. Do read the book.