Everything you need to know about the government funding programme for GP practices’ cloud-based telephony – so far
Pitched as a way of addressing the ‘8am rush’ of patient calls, in May this year the government announced that £240m would be made available for GP practices to buy and install a new cloud-based phone system.1 This blog explains more about how that programme works (if you’d like to skip to that, see ‘The programme’ below), but before we get to the practical details, it’s worth a look at the background.
We’ve written this blog with GP practice staff in mind, but much of the information in it is just as relevant for those working in Primary Care Networks and Integrated Care Systems.
Why cloud-based telephony?
Since the advent of the internet, virtually every aspect of how we conduct our daily lives has been changed by that technology – and as a result, people increasingly expect those providing any kind of service to at least offer the option to engage through digital channels. Clearly, while healthcare is vastly different to consumer services like banking, retail or entertainment, there is some overlap in the expectations of the public – and the NHS Long Term Plan2 recognises this:
“Sustained advances in computing and the democratisation of information are driving choice and control throughout our daily lives, giving us heightened expectations around digital services.”
Translating this for GP practices, there are many reasons why moving to cloud-based telephony makes complete sense for patients – these systems offer features that can ease their frustrations, such as receiving a call back instead of having to wait on hold; better redirection options so they can get through to the right person at the right time; and integration with clinical systems so they receive more joined-up care. But the benefits don’t stop at patients.
Better for your staff, not just for patients
Cloud-based telephony can help your practice in less obvious, but just as important, ways – and one of those is how it can help your employees. Having worked with NHS organisations and GP practices for many years, we know only too well how staff have their own frustrations with telephony systems: they want to provide the best care, but often technology prevents them from doing so.
Perhaps the best example of this stems from the experience of one of our clients – a GP practice in Nottinghamshire. It looks after more than 14,300 patients, so it is more than familiar with the ‘8am rush’ – experiencing it every day, not just Monday morning as the above government press release suggested. Additionally, during the pandemic, it found there was a surge in calls after every major government announcement about Covid-19, so once the crisis started easing, it turned to us to draw on those lessons and upgrade its phone system.
As the practice manager explained after the new phone system had been installed: "Being based in the cloud, it made a lot of sense given how our working arrangements had changed so much over the pandemic.
"So, for example, we now have clinicians using the softphone feature through their laptops, wherever they may be working. And they'll wear a headset to keep their hands free to look through the clinical system while talking to patients. This flexibility around devices means we can keep running, even in the event of a power cut."
Additionally, the phone system chosen by the practice included a wallboard for displaying data about incoming calls, such as how many calls were active and how long patients had been waiting – helping improve patient relationships and with planning work.
As the practice manager explained: "We use this information to tailor what we say to callers. So, if we know they've been waiting for a while, we can make a point of thanking them for their patience, which can help ease any frustrations.
"And having this data also helps us plan workloads and staffing. It can also help us communicate to patients the volume of calls we handle every day, so they can see we empathise with them, and are actively doing something to address those concerns."
These may seem like relatively small improvements, but since calls are such a significant part of practice life, they can have a big impact. And the less obvious benefits of cloud telephony don’t stop there.
The 2025 copper line switch off
There is another reason why it makes sense to move to cloud-based telephony – and particularly now. There is a big change coming that affects everyone: the copper lines that have been used for telephony in the UK since 18763 will be decommissioned by the end of December 2025.
Essentially, this means phone services must switch from analogue to digital infrastructure – as Openreach explains,4 it will work in a similar way to the calls you make through services like Teams, Zoom and FaceTime. But no, that doesn’t mean all calls must be video calls – modern handsets can be used with cloud-based telephony in the same way as traditional telephony.
With this, there is another less-obvious point to consider here that, in the context of GP phone systems, doesn’t attract much attention: you may have alarms or lift emergency services that currently run on copper lines. So in the process of considering cloud telephony for your practice, it’s worth bringing this up with any supplier you may approach for help.
Cloud-based telephony is not a panacea
So far, we’ve highlighted why cloud-based telephony makes sense, but it wouldn’t be fair to ignore the elephant in the room – that there is no technology that is a substitute for your staff, nor can it mitigate the wider pressures on the NHS.
As the NHS Confederation puts it: “CBT [cloud-based telephony] isn’t a silver bullet to the ever-increasing demand on general practice but it can play a vital role in improving patient experience and allowing for appropriate signposting and clinical triage.”5
With this in mind – that cloud-based telephony is essentially a tool – how can you access funding for it and what should you consider when looking for suppliers?
According to the Department of Health in its ‘Delivery plan for recovering access to primary care’6 report, published May 2023, “For a practice on analogue telephony that implements Modern General Practice Access, this plan provides an average of ~£60,000 to support the move to digital telephony, digital tools, and transition support over the next two years.”
It’s worth noting the Institute of General Practice Management has called for further detail on the programme7 – and we agree: funding eligibility and the application process could be much clearer, so we are keeping a close eye on developments knowing the following pointers are still subject to change. As such, we’ve indicated the date we obtained the information below, because we anticipate needing to update this blog – do follow us on LinkedIn for those updates.
How can you apply?
NHS authorities are required to procure their new telephone systems through the Advanced Telephony Better Purchasing framework. But as NHS Digital explains,8 this framework will be replaced with the new Digital Care Services Cloud Telephony framework – which as of 22nd August 2023, NHS Digital describes as follows:
“It will set the strategic technical and commercial direction for future services, as well as the standard for unified communications and telephony services in general practice and primary care.
“The Digital Care Services Cloud Telephony framework will support practices, Primary Care Networks and their Integrated Care Boards in commissioning advanced GP telephony systems built around cloud-hosted Voiceover IP (VoIP) systems, which include clinical system integration, remote access and peak demand management capabilities.”
With this explanation, NHS Digital provides a full buying guide PDF (link 9 below). Essentially, as of 22nd August 2023, until the framework goes live, you should use the time to consider your practice’s telephony needs – the PDF provides a checklist – and contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. It also suggests you should prepare by researching suppliers. And that’s where Wavenet comes in.
Why Wavenet and GP Voice?
Suppliers currently listed on the existing Advanced Telephony Better Purchasing framework will all move across to the Digital Care Services Cloud Telephony framework, where you’ll find full information10 about how we at Wavenet can help, including…
How GP Voice could help your staff and patients:
Ease of use: a priority for us is to ensure our systems are easy to adopt and use because there is no time for downtime in healthcare.
Reduced call waiting times, thanks to better call and queue management
Appointment self-management, including SMS reminders.
Improved continuity of care, thanks to clinical system integration – it works seamlessly with EMIS and SystmOne.
Comprehensive reporting tools, including wallboards with live data.
Security: pre-designed continuity and disaster recovery plans.
Ongoing cost savings and scalability: no on-premise hardware (and associated costs) is required – and additional users can be added with a click.
Unique ways Wavenet makes a great choice for your cloud telephony:
We already work with more than 800 NHS organisations – we take the view that the NHS is one of a kind when it comes to its technology needs.
We provide the telephony for NHS 111 – we can only do so with an intimate understanding of the pressures on the NHS, as well as the needs of staff and patients.
Every Wavenet project is assigned a Prince 2 qualified project manager. We take the smooth running of projects as seriously as we do the technology we install and manage.
Similarly, our projects always go beyond the technology to provide exceptional customer service: that includes training tailored to different staff needs, service and support teams that are available 24/7, 365 days a year; and as standard, a four-hour response time to critical faults.
Where can you get more information?
We’ve included at the bottom of this blog links to all information mentioned in this blog. There is a lot to digest, so we’ve also summarised the key points below. Additionally, you can:
Get tailored advice from one of our healthcare specialists: call 0121 812 0171, or email our dedicated team on email@example.com.
New cloud-based telephony for your GP practice: key points as of 22nd August 2023
Switching to cloud-based telephony isn’t just about improving patient care – it can help staff, too.
Another reason to make the move is the 2025 switch-off of copper-based phone lines – this may affect less obvious telephony services in your practice.
Cloud-based telephony can ease day-to-day demands, but it isn’t a panacea – to provide the best service, it’s important for suppliers to recognise this and be familiar with the bigger picture in the NHS.
The government says GP practices can on average receive £60,000 funding for switching to cloud-based telephony, though some of the finer details of the programme appear to be a work in progress.
To access this funding, GP practices must work with local healthcare stakeholders and the NHS National Commercial and Procurement Hub to apply through the forthcoming Digital Care Services Cloud Telephony framework.
Until the framework goes live, stakeholders should:
Assess their existing telephony arrangements using guidance provided by NHS Digital – use the buying guide through link 9, below
Review approved suppliers and their products – they are listed through link 8, below
Approach suppliers for further information about their products, to get a feel for how they understand your needs and whether they’d make a good fit for your practice. A telephony system is a big, and long-term commitment so thorough planning is vital – the technology and the people providing it need to be right for your practice.
Sources and further information – all accurate at time of publishing, 22/08/2023