Making an appointment to see your GP could in future be handled by an NHS Direct call centre.
The telephone and internet service is in talks with nine GP consortia over handling urgent calls for hundreds of thousands of patients. One consortium in Surrey, called ESyDoc, is discussing using NHS Direct to book GP appointments during the day, as well as for urgent calls, in or out of hours. Patients would ring the Government's new 111 number and NHS Direct call handlers would give patients a range of options including booking an appointment at their practice.
Board papers for a meeting of NHS Direct on 31 January read: "With the changes taking place to the commissioning landscape it is clear that relationships with GP commissioning consortia are the key to the future of NHS Direct's services."
NHS Direct says discussions have been held with one unidentified consortium – since revealed as ESyDoc – to improve urgent care and to trial "in hours triage and booking systems".
Dr Brian Gaffney, the service's medical director and a GP in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, told Pulse magazine: "We know as GPs we can't cope with demand for our practice appointments. We're meeting with pathfinders and GPs are keen to work with us."
But in a statement later, Dr Gaffney said NHS Direct was "not planning on taking over GP appointment booking". He added: "Any service that we develop would be in response to what local commissioners want."
The 111 telephone number is being piloted in three areas, but only for urgent calls. Last year, a report for the Department of Health said national or regional call centres could be set up to handle GP appointments under a "radical" change to the system that would save millions of pounds. Yesterday, the department said there were no plans for NHS Direct to take over GP appointment booking.
Karen Jennings, Unison's head of health, said: "GPs need to consider the effect of replacing human contact with a booking service. We've all waited on the phone to get through to a call centre, with irritating Muzak playing in the background.
"It's a hugely frustrating, depersonalised, even upsetting experience, made even worse if you are ill or caring for a sick child, or elderly relative. A properly funded receptionist, who knows their patients, and can treat them with dignity, respect and urgency, is what patients want."