Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt unveiled the plans in a White Paper which she said would bring healthcare ‘closer to people’s homes’.
Ms Hewitt said that by 2010, 5 per cent of procedures now carried out in large hospitals would be moved to community-based practices. To meet this target some specialties including dermatology, orthopaedics, and gynaecology will be transferred to community hospitals and GP surgeries.
The measures include plans to provide patients with a new generation of expanded community hospitals where they can go for diagnosis, minor surgery, and outpatient appointments. This move has been seen as a reprieve for the country’s threatened cottage hospitals which could be used as a venue for local services.
Family doctors will be encouraged to expand opening times and set up specialist clinics in their practice.
Which? issued a cautious welcome in response to the government’s Our Health, Our Care, Our Say proposals (published online as a PDF). Which? Principal Public Affairs Officer Emma Harrison said: ‘Transferring more services to the community and getting GPs to provide more services is great but there must be effective regulation and inspection of these services to guarantee patients receive services of high clinical standards.’
A Which? survey last year found that 74 per cent of people thought that patients should be able to choose an appointment at a time that’s convenient to them. But Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee warned that a shortage of GPs and money could hamper the government’s plans.
He said: ‘We still have a shortage of family doctors and fewer GPs per head of the population than most other countries in western Europe. Many practices are already offering longer opening hours but there will need to be resources in place to expand this more widely. We cannot stretch our existing workforce any further.’
He added: ‘We will need further detail from the government on where the money is going to come from to fund these changes.’