People will now be able to access a wider range of services at GP practices thanks to a change in how primary care is organised across the county.

The eight clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Kent and Medway, which plan and pay for most NHS services, have been working with GP practices in their areas to register them as primary care networks (PCN).

A primary care network consists of groups of general practices working together, and in partnership with community, mental health, social care, pharmacy, hospital and voluntary services in their local area, to offer more personalised, coordinated health and social care to the people living in their area. Networks have been formed to typically serve populations of between 30,000 and 50,000 people, although some will be either smaller or larger where this makes sense for local needs.

Each network has a named clinical director and has been supported by a statement from the Kent and Medway Sustainability and Transformation Partnership to confirm they meet the national criteria for a primary care network.

In line with the national GP contract, the newly formed networks will be delivering extended hours to patients from 1 July. This means surgeries will be working together to provide GP services outside of core hours. What is offered as part of this extended access is being decided at a local level and supports the move towards patients being seen by the most appropriate healthcare professional for their needs.

The future is bright for primary care networks 

Dr Faye Hinsley (pictured below right) is a GP at Headcorn Surgery in west Kent and is the clinical director for The Ridge Primary Care Network (PCN). A largely rural area, the PCN covers practices in Lenham, Bearsted, Sutton Valence and Langley, as well as Headcorn, and serves a population of more than 40,000 people.

The community is home to a wide age range of people, with a number of families, older people and a large traveller population. Its position on the outskirts of Maidstone also means new housing developments have brought in residents from outside the villages.

The range of health challenges GPs in this area are treating are as broad as the population. Dr Hinsley said, “We have a significant number of patients with complex, long-term health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart problems. We see healthy lifestyle choices as key for these people, such as improved diet, increased exercise and the need to stop smoking. They also need support and information on how to manage their own condition so they can feel more in control.

“I have noticed a significant number of young working adults are presenting with anxiety and depression. This is particularly prevalent for people with a high-paced lifestyle and those who feel isolated from their family and friends.

“The complex mental health issues we are seeing in teenagers are a huge concern to me. The influences and pressure our young people are exposed to has grown enormously over the past decade and it’s having a significant impact on their mental health.

“With our patients who are from the travelling community, the health needs are different. They often have strong family relationships and social connections, but regularly present with minor illnesses related to lifestyle factors such as smoking and passive smoking. They need better access to health visitors and other specialist nurses who can give them essential health information and support.”

Doctors working in the area are, like most areas of the country, struggling to meet the demand for appointments. Although most surgeries run walk-in clinics for urgent appointments, the wait for booking an appointment at one of The Ridge practices, is up to six weeks. For Dr Hinsley, it is clearly time to re-imagine primary care and to think of innovative ways to meet the health needs of the local population.

“After reading the new GP contract, I was really excited by the additional roles that could be brought into primary care that traditionally would have been seen just in hospitals,” said Dr Hinsley. “It will be fantastic to have some of these professionals in our team and we will be able to provide services that meet the specific needs of our communities, rather than referring them elsewhere.

“In the first year in particular, introducing clinical pharmacists and social prescribers will make a huge difference to the pressure on our GPs. The pharmacists will be assisting with the medication needs of our patients, which takes up a significant amount of GP time, and our social prescribers will be working to support people who feel socially isolated and help connect them with various existing community projects.

“In time, we will be able to partner directly with mental health support providers so that counselling is easier to access. We will be able to bring in nurses with specialist expertise and create opportunities for integrated volunteer support. In this way, the whole community will be able support the health and wellbeing of children and adults in our five villages.”

The opportunities and potential for improvement is huge, but there is no denying there is a lot of work ahead. So how are they tackling it at The Ridge and making sure the task doesn’t become overwhelming?

She said: “We are taking it step-by-step. We don’t want to run before we can walk. This will be a process of adding some new support to what is already in place. As time passes we hope to see more health needs met at a local level. I am excited to see what could happen.”