Doctors surgeries in Suffolk have joined forces to form an innovative partnership that could act as a blueprint for how future care is delivered.
The collaboration is the first of its kind in East Anglia and will see doctors sharing resources and working together in a bid to address the severe pressures currently faced by the county.
Difficulties replacing retiring GPs, a rapid rise in the needs of an ageing Suffolk population and ongoing concerns around funding have put general practice and the rest of the NHS under great strain.
Suffolk Primary Care is planning to launch in early April 2017 and will initially be made up of 14 GP practices with a combined total of 112,641 registered patients.
No practices will close and there will be no redundancies. Patients will also still be able to see their GP at their registered practice.
The partnership includes: Brandon Medical Practice, Brandon; Combs Ford Surgery, Stowmarket; Deben Road Surgery, Ipswich; Debenham Group Practice, Debenham; Glemsford Surgery, Glemsford; Haven Health Surgery, Felixstowe; Howard House Surgery, Felixstowe; Lakenheath Surgery, Lakenheath; Leiston Surgery, Leiston; Norwich Road Surgery, Ipswich; Oakfield Surgery, Newmarket; Orchard House Surgery, Newmarket; Stowhealth, Stowmarket and Walton Surgery, Felixstowe.
Each GP practice has signed a Letter of Intent and representatives from each surgery have formed a Suffolk Primary Care Board.
Dr Matt Piccaver, from Glemsford Surgery, said: “General practice in Suffolk – in common with the rest of the UK – faces a challenging period. Half of Suffolk’s GPs intend to retire in the next decade and a third of these will leave within the next five years. There’s similar issues in nursing. It’s a crisis that’s only going to get worse.
“A recent survey of Suffolk doctors also found that no salaried GPs want to be become partners. It means that more and more responsibility rests on the shoulders of a smaller number of individuals. With practice workload also increasing year on year, it puts huge pressure on an already stretched workforce.
“It’s unsustainable. Something must change if general practice is to meet current and future demand. We need to find new and innovative ways to deliver care so we can continue to provide the level of service that patients deserve.”
GP practices within the partnership will begin to work in closer collaboration, with changes implemented gradually.
Initially starting with paperwork and admin to help reduce duplication, other priorities include offering better career opportunities to staff to help address the current recruitment crisis.
New models of delivering care are also under discussion – including using pharmacists, physiotherapists and other professionals to support doctors.
Dr Piccaver added: “NHS England has made clear that it wants to see GP surgeries collaborating and working together. It’s an approach that we agree with and one that we think offers some very exciting opportunities.
“By coming together it means surgeries can work much more effectively – sharing resources to ensure we continue to deliver the highest quality care.
“Crucially, the partnership is about making general practice more sustainable – not cutting costs.
“However, as a partnership we will have a much more influential voice and can help shape the future of healthcare in the county much more effectively.
“Closer working will also allow us to draw on the expertise of colleagues such as clinical pharmacists and emergency care practitioners. We also hope it will help with recruitment – offering more career development opportunities and role security.”
Suffolk Primary Care will be working with Healthwatch Suffolk to ensure patients’ questions are answered.
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “Healthwatch Suffolk welcomes innovative solutions to the serious challenges that our local primary care services face, particularly if it ensures longevity of services for our rural communities. It is difficult to fully understand the implications of this latest initiative at this time but we consider that communication with patients and the public will be paramount.
“This partnership must also actively seek to engage and inform patients as it develops new ways of working. This can only be beneficial to the future of the services at this tumultuous time of change in the NHS.
“We ask that patients keep us up-to-date with their experiences of primary care services in Suffolk so that we can share them with this developing partnership and inform the shape of services in the future.”
The partnership approach has also been backed by the local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), which are match funding the project to the tune of £56,000.
Dr Christopher Browning, a GP in Long Melford and chairman of NHS West Suffolk CCG, said: “We’ve been working hard to develop good programmes to attract new GPs to the area. On behalf of the CCG, I wholeheartedly welcome this venture as one of the ways to strengthen the future of GP surgeries and maintain good levels of care for patients.”
Suffolk Primary Care has been formed after a year of discussions facilitated by Suffolk GP Federation, which represents around 60 practices across the county.
Patients will be kept up to date with the plans through regular surgery newsletters and a series of consultation events, to be held in the new year. In the meantime, anyone with questions about the partnership can contact their practice manager.