A pioneering health project in Sheffield is expected to prevent thousands of people going to A&E unnecessarily this winter.
New out-of-hours services at evenings and weekends opened at selected GP practices across the city in October.
It is hoped that over the course of the next 12 months, the scheme could treat 30,000 patients – many of whom would have otherwise ended up going to Accident & Emergency at the Northern General Hospital or the Minor Injuries Unit at the Hallamshire Hospital.
More than £9 million was granted to health bosses earlier this year by the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund to fund a number of health projects across the city for a year.
Dr Andrew Hilton, a local GP and chief executive of Primary Care Sheffield who are leading the programme, said the schemes that are found to be successful could become permanent. The sites are open until 10pm on weekdays and between 10am and 6pm on weekends and doctors at more than 80 Sheffield medical practices can refer their patients for emergency appointments at the selected centres.
The units have all been set up within either existing practices or as an extension to the current out-of-hours service and are staffed on a rota basis by GPs and nurses across the city.
Practices which have extended their hours for the new scheme include Sloan Medical Centre off Chesterfield Road, Woodhouse Health Centre and the Crookes Medical Practice, while there is also another unit opened on the Northern General’s site.
It follows ‘unprecedented demand’ on the city’s A&E services last winter, which led to the Red Cross being called in to help transport patients to and from hospital because of the huge pressure on services.
A recent audit by the Sheffield Clinical Commissioning Group found about 11 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of children who use the city’s urgent care services could actually be treated by GPs.
Dr Hilton said while it is too early to fully determine the success of the pilot project, patient feedback so far has been ‘overwhelmingly great’.
He said: “Patients are really pleased with the service and finding it useful in avoiding going to A&E.
“That is what we wanted – as part of the response to winter planning, it is hopefully an additional 30,000 patient contacts across the lifetime of the programme.
“That should go some way towards helping this winter. One satellite was open on Christmas Day and they will all open on all the bank holidays.”
The new out-of-hours service is part of the wider Enhancing Primary Care programme, which is a major pilot consisting of 16 schemes. It involved 82 of Sheffield’s 87 GP practices, as well as NHS Sheffield CCG, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield City Council and voluntary and community organisations.
Among the other innovations currently being trialled in the city is an online service called WebGP, where patients can fill in a questionnaire about a health condition they are concerned about which is sent directly to their doctor to check and act on.
The service is being piloted by nine practices across Sheffield and Dr Hilton said WebGP can save patients having to attend appointments, while allowing doctors to make decisions about care more efficiently.
The wider programme also involves community pharmacists and GP practices working more closely together – with pharmacists carrying out more activities relating to prescribing medication.
It is estimated that in the first month of the scheme, this has saved more than 200 hours of GP time.
Dr Hilton said: “Changing the way community pharmacists and GPs work together means that we can make better use of the resources available within practices and both highly skilled health professionals are more available to support people in managing their health and wellbeing.”
Dr Keith Ridge, chief pharmaceutical officer for NHS England, said: “It is critical for pharmacists and GPs to work closely together if patients are going to get optimal outcomes from their medicines.
“This initiative is a good example of that and will help develop a genuine multidisciplinary and seamless approach to patient care which plays to the strengths of GPs and community pharmacists alike.
“It sits well alongside NHS England’s initiative to help fund and pilot over 400 clinical pharmacists to work alongside GPs.”
n For more information about the different projects, visit www.primarycaresheffield.org.uk.