GP practices can develop virtual patient participation groups to meet the requirements of the latest incentive scheme for patient involvement, the BMA and NHS Employers have said.

Practices are required to develop patient participation groups if they wish to earn money under the Patient Participation directed enhanced service, but latest guidance makes it clear that virtual groups will be satisfactory.

In the guidance, the BMA and NHS Employers say some GP practices are already running virtual groups, in the form of an email community that they consult on a regular basis instead of holding face-to-face meetings.

The BMA and NHS Employers have also published a short guide to setting up a virtual patient reference group that was commissioned by the Department of Health.

The guide suggests practices begin by developing an email contact list and provides advice on recruiting patients and running online surveys.

The guidance says that whatever approach is adopted there must be a structure in place for regularly engaging with patients and that practices should strive to gain feedback from a representative cross section of their patient population.

The DES also requires practices to conduct an annual survey of patients’ views, which can be done electronically or on paper, and to publish a Local Patient Participation report on their website, which must include the results of the survey and the action plan agreed as a result.

The guidance says that if a practice does not already have a website it must set one up.

The DES includes six steps and around £60m of investment; equivalent to £1.10 per registered patient per year. Failure to publish the report on the practice website by 31 March each year will result in no payment being made under the DES.

Funding for the DES has come from a reduction in the cost of the extended hours DES but the patient participation guidance says that quality of access in terms of obtaining an appointment within two working days and booking ahead should continue to be maintained.

The guidance adds that access should also include a choice of modes of contact including face to face, phone and electronic contact which it says can be developed further as technology allows.

The patient participation DES runs from 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2013.