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BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39163.683785.4E (Published 29 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:668
  1. Lynn Eaton, journalist
  1. London
  1. leaton{at}bmj.com

    The road is now clear for supermarkets and retail pharmacies to directly provide GP services—but is this “24-7 healthcare” really likely? Lynn Eaton assesses the odds.

    The government announced proposals last week to open up the provision of GP services, particularly in under doctored areas, to new providers—including, potentially, supermarkets and retail pharmacies.

    Health secretary Patricia Hewitt said the move was to ensure all patients would be able to gain access to health services. She wanted to attract a “broad range of providers, from existing entrepreneurial GPs to social enterprises and” —here's the rub—“corporate independent providers.”

    Boots the Chemist, which has just opened a GP surgery at a store in Poole, Dorset, welcomed this as “good news.” “We know from the success in Poole, and our experience of offering a chlamydia screening service in London, that accessibility to health services, especially in the evenings and at the weekend, is important,” said Alex Gourley, its director of healthcare. “We will be exploring these new opportunities with the NHS both nationally and locally.”

    But Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee, was less happy: “What we don't want to see is any attempt to use this announcement as a back door way of privatising the NHS.”

    An underlying worry is that “corporate independent providers” could include the likes of Boots the Chemist, Asda, or Sainsbury's, for example. It's understandable that general practitioners might fear this new face of primary care as a threat to their business. Could the 24-7 culture be foisted on them by the big supermarkets, muscling in on areas where individual general practices aren't able to meet patients' perceived needs?

    It's not even clear whether Boots and Asda would ever want to take on direct provision of primary care—or, indeed, to do business …

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