GP waiting times: public will see you now, Mr Blair

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tony Blair will be presented this week with an answer to the embarrassment he suffered during the general election, when he was barracked by a television audience for not knowing how difficult it is to make an appointment to see a GP. The answer, his advisers will tell him, is to pull together the biggest focus group Britain has ever seen.

Tony Blair will be presented this week with an answer to the embarrassment he suffered during the general election, when he was barracked by a television audience for not knowing how difficult it is to make an appointment to see a GP. The answer, his advisers will tell him, is to pull together the biggest focus group Britain has ever seen.

Dr Carolyn Lukensmeyer, founder and president of AmericaSpeaks, a company that boasts of having pioneered new ways to give ordinary Americans a say in how they are governed, will visit Britain later this month to explain how her methods can be applied to the NHS. She will speak at a conference sponsored by the Department of Health on 23 June.

Dr Lukensmeyer's speciality is the "21st Century Town Meeting" in which up to 1,000 local residents are assembled in a vast focus group. Typically, they are gathered in a huge hall where 100 round tables have been set out, and are broken into groups of 10, each supervised by a professional.

When a cabinet sub-committee meets this week to discuss NHS reform, the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, will urge that the same idea should be used to sound out British attitudes to local GP surgeries and other aspects of healthcare outside hospitals.

The need to ask the public arises from the moment when Mr Blair was taken by surprise by a mother who told him what patients already knew - that GP surgeries have ploys to get around government-imposed targets. These targets specify that no one must wait more than 48 hours for an appointment with a GP.

Diana Church, who had struggled to arrange an appointment for her 10-year-old daughter, told the Prime Minister: "You have to sit on the phone for three hours because you are not allowed to ask for the appointment before that, because by making it 48 hours beforehand they are missing the government target. The only way to get a doctor's appointment is to turn up outside at eight o'clock in the morning."

A bemused Mr Blair replied: "That is news to me" - and was barracked by other members of the Question Time audience who had had similar experiences.

After the election, the Prime Minister bounced the Department of Health into embarking on a new round of reform of GP surgeries and other forms of community healthcare. He also moved Patricia Hewitt to head the department with instructions to find out what actually happens when members of the public come into contact with the NHS outside hospitals. She decided that the standard government consultation would not work because the only people to respond would be health professionals.

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