Thousands of Londoners face losing their GP because NHS managers are pioneering a cost-saving initiative to remove “ghost patients”.
And the measures could be forced on people across Britain.
Anyone who has not seen their doctor in the last six months and who does not respond to two letters asking them to confirm their details is being struck off automatically.
The exercise is being carried out in Brent, north west London. GPs insist the plan will put lives at risk.
“The people most likely to end up without a doctor are those whose needs are the greatest,” says Dr Helen Clark, medical director of the London-wide local medical committee and a GP in Brent.
“I’m particularly worried about the impact on the elderly, people who have difficulty reading and writing, and those with health conditions that make communication difficult.”
Some GP practices could “purge” up to 40 percent of their patients. The plan must be stopped—otherwise it could be rolled out throughout the country.
NHS bosses say that because surgeries receive a fixed amount per patient on their list, regardless of whether they receive treatments or not, the purge will save millions of pounds.
Dr Clark says, “Patients who lose their place at their surgery will be forced to re-register, and that means they must bring in their proof of identity and address details again.
“Someone who is feeling really unwell could find that a struggle and might be put off from getting proper medical advice. Their health could be in danger.”
The plans also pose a danger to public health, and in the long run it will cost the NHS more money than it saves.
Immunisation strategies depend on GPs identifying patients in high-risk groups and getting them vaccinated.
To respond to the flu virus surgeries contact people with asthma and other conditions, urging them to get a jab.
But patients no longer registered with a GP won’t be called, putting them at risk of serious illness and hospitalisation.
“There are likely to be similar problems when screening for cancers and diabetes,” says Dr Clark.
She fears that list-purging on such a massive scale could mean some people will miss the chance to have their diseases diagnosed at a stage where they can be effectively treated.
“Purged” ex-patients, who have been contacted by health workers, say they never received a letter asking them to confirm their details.
Others insist they were removed from their surgery list despite having returned a confirmation form.
Some doctors now fear that so many of patients are being wiped off their lists that their practices will become unsustainable and forced to close.
Dr Clark said, “All practices already have strategies to deal with patients who have died, moved away, or transferred to another surgery. GPs support phased processes to keep their lists clean.
“The difference with this trial is that they are using a shotgun approach of targeting every patient in the borough at the same time.
“That’s going to mean a terrible waste of resources and it’s going to put people at risk.”
NHS Shared Business Services, a joint venture between private firm Steria and the Department of Health, is implementing the measures in Brent.
It is planning a national “list-cleansing” programme. The company currently has cost-cutting contracts with around 50 Primary Care Trusts across Britain, and claims to have saved them a total of £3 million per year.
Steria is a French-based multinational that has made huge profits by offering IT services to the public sector. It has lucrative business interests in Saudi Arabia.