Government plans to reduce health inequalities across the nation have stepped a gear with the announcement last week of new GP practices for 38 primary care trusts in the most deprived areas of England.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has identified 38 PCTs that will be the first to benefit from plans to provide 100 new GP practices to under-doctored areas with the worst health outcomes over the next three years. The first batch of new practices are expected to open their doors in about a year’s time.

Speaking at the NHS Alliance Conference on Friday, he stressed that gaps in GP provision can be as much as 43 GPs per 100,000 of the population compared with 88 GPs in other areas, and promised that the new practices will offer a range of innovative services to boost patient care, such as extended opening hours and practice boundaries.

“Evidence shows there is a direct link between low numbers of GP surgeries and poor health within a community. That is why we are increasing the number of family doctors services in these areas”, he explained. But, he added: “This is not just about building extra primary care capacity but developing high-quality, responsive services with a strong focus on prevention. This is a great opportunity for entrepreneurial GPs as well as social enterprises and the independent sector to develop innovative services for patients.”

NHS vision
The call for better access to primary care was cemented in an interim report on Health Minister Sir Ara Darzi’s vision for the National Health Service, which will be published in full next year just short of the Service’s 60th birthday.

A key vein of his plans for the NHS is an injection of new resources into primary care in areas with the poorest provision, including the establishment of a batch of new health centres, or polyclinics, in easily-accessible locations that offer a whole host of convenient services to patients, as well as improving out-of-hours care.

The NHS Alliance has voiced its support for the provision of these new practices and the planned new health centres, but stressed in its position paper Primary care and GP access that commercial and third sector providers vying for chance to set them up should operate on a level playing field with traditional NHS services, which includes offering the same clarity of finances.

The British Medical Association has, however, has questioned whether setting up polyclinics will be a cost-effective move, particularly as it would require a considerable “up front” investment in new buildings, equipment and staff. Furthermore, its chairman Hamish Meldrum warned that private sector involvement “would, in reality, destroy the UK model of general practice and threaten many district general hospitals.

Last month, the government announced a £250 million access fund to pay for the new practices, as well as at least 150 GP-led health supercentres across the country.