GP practices using a rapid telephone consulting system have reported massive drops in face-to-face appointments, greater patient satisfaction, and a reduction in DNAs (did not attends), a key drain on resources.

Two GPs presenting the case for increased telephone consulting within practices to delegates at the Royal College of General Practitioners' annual conference last week said the system had numerous benefits and, crucially, had transformed their handle on patient demand.

Under the system, patients phoning in are identified by receptionists and are asked to give a brief description of the problem. This information is then passed straight to the caller's preferred GP (where applicable), who will call the patient back, often within half and hour.

Astonishingly, St Albans-based GP Steven Laitner, who has been working with such a system for some years, said that as many as 60% of patients do not need a face-to-face appointment with the GP following a telephone consultation, and told delegates that his practice now has empty appointments.

Tyne and Wear-based GP Ashley Liston also recently introduced a rapid response telephone consulting system and, after ironing out initial teething problems, has seen huge benefits within his practice.

A recurring theme on the NHS Choices website is access, he said, and stressed that "delivering 10-minute slots for all patients is archaic".

Hailing the telephone system as "convenient and stress-free," he said "in the first year it has absolutely transformed access to GPs", improving continuity of care and patient satisfaction, while reducing home visits and slashing DNAs.

It was also noted that there seems to be close correlation between better access to GPs and lower A&E attendance, a fact that is particularly pertinent given the current crisis in emergency care.

The scheme has allegedly been scorned by some GPs who feel it inappropriate to do what they consider 'receptionist' type work. But Liston and Laitner stressed that GPs are already gatekeepers for other health services, the telephone scheme is merely doing them doing the same for their own practices.

"Iit's not about denying face-to-face appointments, but about the right encounter, with the right clinician, at the right time", Laitner stressed.