NHS England: All patients will have access to hospitals with shortest wait lists

All patients in England will soon be able to be referred to hospitals with the shortest waiting lists under plans unveiled alongside a new contract for GPs.

The e-Referral Service allows GPs and patients to identify the hospitals with the shortest waits if a patient needs to be sent for hospital care.

More than a third of GP practices do not currently use this service and NHS England announced that £10 million will be invested to make it available at every GP practice by October this year.

NHS England also announced plans to widen pilot schemes which have seen NHS 111 directly booking GP appointments for patients among practices that want to take part.

Meanwhile, officials have agreed to complete the roll-out of the Electronic Prescription Service - which allows prescriptions to be sent direct to a pharmacist.

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The actions come alongside the GP 2018/19 contract, which sees increased funding for pay, expenses, and indemnity cover for GPs.

NHS England said that the contract agreement also makes clear that practices must not advertise private GP services where that service should be provided free of charge on the NHS.

The new contract, agreed by NHS England, the British Medical Association's (BMA) GP committee and the Government, includes an increased investment of £256.3 million.

This includes £60 million to be paid to GP practices to help cover the increased costs of indemnity inflation from 2017/18.

The contract also includes a 1% pay uplift for GPs.

However the BMA said that while the funding increase will help practices and provide some stability, it will not solve some of the wider issues facing general practice.

"I am pleased we have reached agreement with NHS England on changes to the contract this year, which includes some important improvements in areas such as pay and expenses, indemnity and premises," said Dr Richard Vautrey, chairman of the BMA's GP Committee.

"While this agreement alone will not resolve many of the issues facing general practice today, it builds on our progress from the last two years and provides stability to practices at a time when there is little else stable for our profession."

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: "The 2018/19 contract is a further concrete step in investing in and strengthening general practice, which is at the heart of our modern NHS."

Dr Arvind Madan, NHS England's director of primary care, added: "This new contract is positive news for patients and GPs, especially the focus on digital solutions. This will help GPs focus their time and resources on the areas that matter most to their patients."

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Overall this is a positive contract for GPs and we thank our colleagues at the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA for their negotiations on our behalf. The increased funding to support GPs and practices to cover increasing medical indemnity costs is particularly encouraging."