NHS Voices blogs

Primary care networks and cloud-based telephony

How cloud-based telephony can enable more holistic and personalised primary care for patients.
Dan Bunstone

30 March 2023

Managing increased patient demand, ensuring patient satisfaction, and protecting staff wellbeing satisfaction across an ever-busy primary care landscape is a real challenge. So the switch to cloud-based telephony (CBT) is an important step towards a digital revolution in primary care that will help to tackle some of these big issues says PCN clinical director Dr Dan Bunstone.  

The recent changes announced in the new GP Contract, published earlier this month, now require general practices to buy and install cloud-based telephony (CBT) when their current telephony contracts expire. Coming at a time when the demand for appointments shows no sign of abating with more than 29 million GP appointments delivered in January alone, this new requirement is designed to provide patients with a more streamlined service in the way they are able access to general practice.

CBT is one part of a bigger jigsaw that will help primary care services ensure that they can successfully work at scale across multiple sites, with the primary care workforce enabled to access their telephony system across various devices including mobiles, desktops and tablets, ultimately delivering quicker and more seamless access for patients.

The 8am Monday scramble for appointments is synonymous with patient frustration

As Dr Claire Fuller points out in her stocktake on primary care integration published last year ‘The 8am Monday scramble for appointments is synonymous with patient frustration,’ so this requirement and the early acknowledgement of this as an issue for general practice is a positive and proactive move.

Practices will be able to provide patients with more holistic and personalised care with cloud-based telephony, and features such as automated booking, call recording and system integration will help to achieve this. Changing to CBT will also allow for much richer data collection as regards patient demand and the number of calls received for those managing the delivery of clinical services.

One of the NHS Confederation’s Primary Care Network members describes CBT as ‘vital’ to their business continuity plans because it can be accessed across multiple sites. As many practices found during the pandemic, using CBT they could operate and deliver critical services from other sites across their network of practices.

CBT isn’t a silver bullet to the ever-increasing demand on general practice but it can play a vital role in improving patient experience and allowing for  appropriate signposting and clinical triage

Other leaders say the granular data they can gather is very useful, particularly in understanding call failure and identifying patients struggling to contact the practice. This view also helps PCNs to present the data needed to demonstrate the level of demand and the further support they require. CBT isn’t a silver bullet to the ever-increasing demand on general practice but it can play a vital role in improving patient experience and allowing for  appropriate signposting and clinical triage. Capturing rich data on practice-level demand will support administrative and clinical staff planning and allow practices to work collaboratively based on demand data.

It can be challenging for practices to navigate the telephony marketplace, and in response, NHS England has developed a procurement framework for primary care. When their contract expires, the Better Purchasing Framework (BPF) will require practices to purchase their new telephony solution from an agreed list of suppliers. It’s vital that when practices start their transition to CBT, they do this in collaboration with the partner practices in their PCN or federation so they can take full advantage of the technology.

When making the transition there some crucial questions to consider:

  • Have all the practices in the PCN or federation been mapped in terms of their timelines to moving to CBT?
  • Are there any contractual constraints or penalties to consider?
  • What is the PCN’s digital strategy and are all practices aligned with that?

Great leadership, planning and communication across practices, PCNs and federations are key to successful implementation of this new technology and there is an important role here for new PCN digital and transformation leads.

NHS England’s forthcoming delivery plan for recovering access to primary care will set out how primary care will be supported in improving access next year. It will be essential to that additional funding is made available to allow practices to leave current contracts early and collaborate with their PCN counterparts in upgrading to CBT.

Primary care leaders need the time, confidence and crucially the funding to pursue digital innovation, and given the right tools to make this a reality we can ensure that patients get the service they need and deserve.

This article was first published in Pulse PCN on 29 March 2023.

Dr Dan Bunstone is clinical director of Warrington Innovation Network PCN and chair of the NHS Confederation’s Primary Care Network data and digital design group.