Sunday GP appointments 'not in demand', research says
Four out of five people are happy with their GP surgery's opening hours, and Sunday appointments are not in demand, suggests research in the British Journal of General Practice.
The figures come from a survey of more than 800,000 patients across England.
The government wants GP practices to team up to offer services over seven days of the week in their local area, saying it will reduce pressure on A&E.
But doctors' leaders say the move is not the best use of NHS resources.
The research, carried out by a team from the University of East Anglia and the University of Oxford, used data from the 2014 General Practice Patient Survey which was sent to more than 8,000 GP practices.
Responding to the question: "Is your GP surgery currently open at times that are convenient for you?", the large majority (81%) responded: "Yes", while 19% said: "No".
Of those who were not happy about opening times, 76% were in favour of weekend opening.
From that group, three out of four said opening surgeries on a Saturday would make it easier for them to see or speak to a doctor.
But only one in three said Sunday opening times would be preferable.
The groups most likely to favour weekend opening were:
- younger people
- those working full-time
- those who could not get time off work
People with illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, learning difficulties or problems with walking were more likely to be happy with traditional opening times.
Dr John Ford, lead researcher from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said Sunday opening was not targeted at patients who needed to see their GP the most - such as older people with long-term health problems.
"General practice is facing huge challenges in terms of workload and workforce, so we need to think carefully about where to spend precious resource," he said.
"We should also remember that currently it is possible to see a GP out of hours over the weekend for urgent problems."
Reducing hospital pressure
Not every GP surgery will be expected to be open at the weekend.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wants GP practices to team up to offer seven-day services by 2020.
A decline in patient satisfaction with GP practices over the past few years underlies the government's policy.
A Department of Health statement said the public wanted GP appointments seven days a week to suit their busy lives.
"That demand is being met by nearly half a million evening and weekend appointments and patients say the service is invaluable," it said.
Pilot schemes currently running in England to test the benefits of providing extended GP opening times "are also benefiting the rest of the NHS, reducing minor A&E visits by 15%", the Department of Health said.
But critics - including GP leaders - say the move is unaffordable and not matched with what patients need.
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Our patients have better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than have their ears syringed.
"We hope this research will quell the government's obsession with seven-day working once and for all."
She said a better use of the NHS's scant resources would be to invest in thousands more GPs, a "robust, routine five-day service" and existing GP out-of-hours services.
A recent NHS England review of the 20 pilot schemes offering extended GP opening times indicated weekday slots were well-utilised but patient demand for routine appointments on Sundays was very low.
The review said that providing additional opening times on Saturdays, particularly in the morning, was most likely to meet people's needs.