It goes without saying that a reduction in unnecessary hospital admissions would save both time and funds for the NHS and its staff. A recent proposal which aims to cut the number of patient referrals by GPs to hospital specialists, in that context, seems understandable.
Surgeries are being offered up to £11,000 in incentive payments by Clinical Commissioning Groups if they manage to keep within targets regarding outpatient referrals and follow-ups. The ‘incentive’ system however, raises serious concerns about the risks of financially ‘rewarding’ GP surgeries for not taking action.
The introduction of such schemes infers that GPs are currently being more cautious than necessary and referring too many patients to hospital. It also suggests that although GPs are referring an appropriate number of patients to specialists, it is considered preferable that money be saved for other uses and patients be provided with non-specialist advice.
The Clinical Negligence team at Slater and Gordon take on a huge number of cases in which delays have occurred in diagnosing and treating patients with a number of medical conditions. It is the precisely the absence of timely referrals - the very thing GPs are now being encouraged to cut down on - that cause so many of our clients to face far worse consequences than they would have done had they been referred earlier for treatment.
A huge part of a GP’s role is to be able to point a patient in the right direction for future treatment, which in some instances, involves referring them to a medical specialist who is better able to assess that patient’s particular condition. Encouraging GPs not to take this step means relying on professionals who do not necessarily have the expertise to confidently make conclusions and recommendations for diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions. Often the timescales within which conditions are diagnosed and treated can be key in ensuring a patient’s full recovery and avoiding long term symptomology.
Whilst granting access to additional funds for local GP practices might facilitate better services such as, longer surgery hours, greater numbers of medical staff, or even the purchase of better quality equipment, achieving this at the cost of depriving individual patients of specialist, and in some cases, lifesaving expertise and treatment cannot be right.
We are pleased that the General Medical Council has already begun investigating some of these schemes and we await further developments with interest.