There it was on the mat. Young Mr Ben Bradshaw’s letter saying I had been chosen to give my views on local NHS services as part of the GP Patient Survey. Actually it should have said my views on “primary care services”, since it is only about GP practices not the NHS in general, but let that pass. How kind of the Minister of State for Health, I thought, to take the time to write to me and about 5.5m other registered patients in England as part of the £8m exercise to find out more about patient experiences. We as taxpayers pay for for it after all, so it ought to treat us well and listen to our views. I’m all for finding out what the patients as customers think, provided the results actually produce improvement.
Not wanting to fiddle with seven pages of paper questionnaire, I went straight to the online version as invited by Mr Bradshaw and dutifully logged in my unique username and password as provided on the document. I noted too the stern warning “only one response per patient can be accepted.” I shall return to that point later.
The 47 questions are reasonable: lots about privacy and dignity, length of time for consultations and listening skills and – the crucial one I think – “involving you in decisions about your care”. That question came up about consultations with nurses too, so it will be interesting to see if there are any comparisons to be made between patient experiences with different kinds of primary care practitioners.
What was missing, I thought, was the classic consumer research question: “Would you recommend someone else to use this service based on the experiences you have had?” That should appear next time if Government is serious about patients having more choices, especially as 150 new GP led health centres are opening across England to increase primary care capacity and access and hence users’ range of choices about where and when and from whom to obtain services.
Completing the online form and being nicely thanked for my troubles by the Peninsula Medical School and the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre at the University of Manchester who deveoped the questionnaire, I then pressed “send” and that was that. And then I had a devious little thought. Let’s see if the system really means what it says about only one response being accepted per patient. Having waited a decent interval, I then went through the process again. To my surprise, I as again welcomed warmly and invited to enter by “unique” (or maybe not?) username and password which worked without a hitch. Would I now be allowed to proceed to complete the document again? Expecting a big red “STOP” to appear somewhere, I proceeded through the questions and got to the end without challenge. And then I did it a third time after which the words of the old electoral gag “vote early, vote often” came into my mind. Not very confidence inspiring really.
I’m not saying that I expect my experience means the Department of Health will be inundated with multiple online submissions for the GP Patient Survey. They will be fortunate to get a decent return even from the two prompts built into the system – at least if the National Patient Survey results in our PCT are anything to go by. It will be interesting to see if I get these postal prompts even thought I have submitted online already. But what I am saying is that a reasonable effort to collect patient experiences which we should have confidence in isn’t secure – at least judging from today’s empirical experience. It is thus open to distortion if others wanted to “vote often” as I found I could do.
Has anyone had this experience with the online GP Patient Survey? Try it and see what happens and then let us have your thoughts about the exercise and surveying patient experiences generally, here.