Health services in poor areas will get a boost under new government plans to extend GP services, Patricia Hewitt said today.
Primary care trusts (PCTs) in London, Liverpool, Lancashire, Plymouth and Yorkshire will be the first to benefit through six pilot schemes, the health secretary announced.
Aimed at improving access to NHS healthcare outside of hospitals, the pilots are expected to create three walk-in centres, two GP practices, a nurse-led practice and a range of other services by early next year.
One of the measures being trialled is the establishment of breakfast and tea-time surgeries, with practices open from 07:00 BST to 22:00 BST to allow patients greater access to GPs.
GPs in the pilot PCTs will also be encouraged to provide direct access to medical tests and local care for patients suffering from diabetes, asthma and arthritis, and to make regular visits to nursing and residential homes.
"These new pilots are great news for people living in some of the most deprived and under doctored areas in the country," Ms Hewitt said.
"The programme will tackle inequalities in healthcare by recruiting more GPs and other primary care professionals to provide new services.
"It will give GPs and other providers the freedom to work with the NHS to develop a range of services needed locally, such as diagnostics, as well as to offer better access to a GP."
Ms Hewitt also brought forward the deadline for PCTs to offer GPs the opportunity to run their own budgets by two years to 2006.
"GPs are responsible for the vast majority of NHS patient contacts and commit the bulk of NHS resources through prescribing, treating and referring patient to other services. There are obvious benefits to patients if GPs control the budgets," she said.
The Patients' Association welcomed the plans as a way of providing more flexible patient care, but expressed concern that there might not be enough GPs to cover the services.
This fear is matched by some doctors themselves, while some believe the plans are incompatible with recent introduction of regulations on out-of-hours care that enable GPs to opt out of working evenings and weekends.
In addition, there is concern about the cost of the increased services. The Department of Health is providing £3.8 million for legal and business support for the pilot schemes but GPs would have to apply to their local PCT for any additional funding.