The third annual GP Patient Experience Survey was launched by the government yesterday (January 5), but the British Medical Association (BMA) has already warned that the questionnaire is flawed and will end up misleading both patients and doctors.

This week, survey questionnaires and a covering letter will be sent to millions of people registered with GP practices in each of the four UK nations, asking about their experiences of visiting a GP. When last year’s survey revealed that patients wanted faster access to GP appointments, the National Health Service (NHS) “listened and responded, and now over half of GP practices are making it easier for their patients to book appointments later in the evening, earlier in the morning or at the weekend,” said Health Minister Ben Bradshaw.

This year’s questionnaire includes wider questions, which “will ensure patients can have their say about the issues that matter most to them. Where patients identify areas for improvement, the local NHS will need to respond,” Mr Bradshaw added.

There are now more questions to find out if GP practices are getting the basics right for their patients, eg, whether they find receptionists helpful, have the option of telephone consultations, feel their problem is understood and how they rate the overall care they receive. Patients are also asked to rate local out-of-hours care.

The government says that patients’ answers will continue to set the level of payments made to their GP practice for delivering access to appointments in two working days and for booking appointments in advance. The expanded survey also means the local NHS can link GP pay more closely to their patients’ views if this will improve care, it adds.

However, the BMA forecasts problems. Different versions of the survey will be used in each of the four UK nations and the length and complexity of the new questionnaires for England and Northern Ireland could put some people off replying, warned Dr Lawrence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GP Committee. “We are very concerned that the changes mean we won’t be able to draw any meaningful comparison with previous years’ results, so no-one will truly know if the service has improved or got worse,” he said.

Dr Buckman also condemned the discontinuation this year of the practice-based patient survey which was previously given to patients immediately after a visit to the practice as part of the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF). “This gave very accurate patient feedback about the quality of consultation with the GP or nurse, something the new survey will fail to do. It can be very difficult trying to remember how you felt about a consultation which took place six months ago. It means the results of the new postal survey may not give the true picture of GP services,” he said.

- From next April, the GP Patient Experience Survey will move to being run every quarter.