A NHS GP practice has signed up a call centre to make appointments for its patients when it is closed.

Goodwood Court Medical Centre in Hove, Sussex, has been using the Glasgow-based call centre since March to handle calls from patients who want to book an appointment with one of its GPs.

Senior partner Dr Nigel Higson told EHI Primary Care that he believed it was the first NHS GP-run practice in the UK to call in a call centre.

However, he predicted that consortia-run call centres could take over routine appointment booking from practices in future.

A proposal to centralise GP appointment booking in national or regional call centres was put forward by a Department of Health funded report last month.

The report attracted widespread criticism from GPs and the BMA. In response the DH said it had no plans to introduce national calls centres and said that it would be down to the local NHS to decide how best to provide services for local communities.

Dr Higson told EHI Primary Care that he began to investigate the use of a call centre when he discovered that some patients who did not want to use internet appointment booking were trying to ring the practice in the early morning, mostly between 6.30am and 8am.

“When we analysed our calls, we realised some people were trying to call us at that time. We didn’t want to employ staff then, so we decided to use a call centre.”

Dr Higson selected Glasgow-based call centre Direct Call, which is charging the practice a standing charge of about £70 a month plus 30p a minute for call handling. Dr Higson said the total monthly cost to the practice was about £170.

He added: “That’s obviously a lot less than the cost of employing staff to cover that period.”

The practice set up the system by making the call centre a fictitious patient on its list, known as ”Mr Call Centre.”

Call centre staff book GP appointments using the online booking functionality of the practice’s FrontDesk appointments system.

Staff record the patient’s name, address and date of birth in free text and in the morning the practice receives an email listing appointments booked. Practice staff then convert into the real person’s name.

The call centre can take calls from practice patients 24 hours day, but the service is mainly promoted to patients out-of-hours.

Dr Higson said: “The call centre staff cannot access any information about patients and the system seems to work. It’s not used massively – between one and three patients a day – but it seems to be appreciated by those who do use it. ”

Dr Higson said the call centre service had also been used by the practice when the practice’s telephone lines failed.

He added: “It’s certainly something that could be expanded for people who want to make a straightforward 10 minute GP appointment booking. I am in favour of call centres for routine apppintments.”

Earlier this week, GP newspaper Pulse reported that private company The Practice, which runs more than 50 NHS GP practices across England, is planning to roll-out a call centre model across England over the next few months.

Dr Higson said he believes that in future localities could set up call centres for appointment booking and said he would also like to see practice staff employed on a locality basis.

He added: “I’ve always believed that GP surgeries haven’t got the skills to run a proper human resources function with training and staff development and so on and it would be better done on a locality basis.”