FAMILY doctors in the region have been given an extra £2.9m to make it easier to see a GP as part of a move to ease the pressure on hard-pressed hospital A&E departments.

Twenty-two GP practices in Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby and another 10 in Darlington will use the cash to extend weekend opening hours, make appointments easier to book during the week  and set up a specialised team to help care for frail, elderly patients in their own homes.

The allocation is part of the £50m Prime Minister's Challenge Fund - with the successful North Yorkshire and Darlington bids accounting for two out of the seven successful pilot schemes across the North of England.

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In Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby its £2.4m allocation will pay for the 'Together as One Community' trial which will see GP surgeries staying open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.

There will also be a new focus on preventative care, involving community-based teams bringing together GPs, the community hospital, pharmacists and nurses with improved IT support.

For those North Yorkshire patients in rural areas it will reduce the need to travel long distances for health care, with specialists using video technology to offer 'virtual' appointments at the patient's local surgery.

In Darlington the £448,400 allocation will allow GP surgeries taking part in the 'Caring for Darlington Beyond Tomorrow' pilot scheme to  offer patients greater flexibility on booking appointments at selected practices on weekdays - and from 8am to 6.30pm at weekends.

It will also pay for a new multi-disciplinary team of GPs, nursing and social care staff to provide extra support for frail, older patients to provide care closer to home and prevent unnecessary hospital admissions.

However, Trevor Johnston, regional spokesman on health for Unison, said:  "What the Government is putting into primary care is just a drop in the ocean compared with what is really needed to ease  the pressure on our hospitals. This is gesture politics of the worst kind.

"The idea of GPs having to bid against each other to get this money is horrible and what about all the areas in the North-East which are not getting a penny for longer opening hours?"

But Dr Giles Horner, from Egton Surgery on the North Yorkshire Moors,  said: "We are delighted to have been awarded the Prime Minister's Challenge Fund and believe it will make a huge difference to healthcare in our local communities.

“As a group of practices, we have a strong history of working together to address local challenges. We share the same values and have the same aspirations to improve services together for our population.

"The challenges of our rural area have made working together across practices an obvious solution for some time.

"This programme is our chance to deliver transformational change across the three localities of Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby.

"It will deliver a new model of integrated primary, community and social care, providing a sustainable model for rural healthcare that will vastly improve the services that our patients receive."

Bid leader, Dr Jenny Steel, from Blacketts Medical Practice in Darlington, said: "We are absolutely delighted and shocked that Darlington has been identified as a national pilot and that they saw the value in what we are trying to achieve.

"Darlington is a small town and often gets overlooked so it's nice to be able to do something that focuses on the needs of our population with the GPs of the town who are in the best place to serve patients."

Mike Bewick, NHS England's Deputy Medical Director, said: "We were very pleased so many practices came together to look at delivering innovative services at scale and we will await the outcomes of the pilot schemes eagerly.

"This fund is about helping those people who struggle to find a GP appointment to fit in with family and work life. We need to create an environment that enables GPs to play a much stronger role, as part of a more integrated system of out-of-hospital care."

In October 2013, the Prime Minister announced the £50m Challenge Fund to improve access to general practice and NHS England was asked to lead on the selection and management of the pilot schemes which will include 1,147 GP practices across England.

David Cameron said: “Back in October, I said I wanted to make it easier for people to get appointments that fit in around a busy working week and family commitments.

"There has been a great response from doctors, with lots of innovative ideas, and we will now see over seven million patients given weekend and evening opening hours, alongside more access to their family doctor on the phone, via email or even Skype."

It was originally thought that around half a million people would benefit from the cash pot across England but due to high levels of interest it has been rolled out to cover more GP services, a Department of Health spokesman said.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: "By freeing up hard working family doctors to spend more time with their sickest patients, and by making it easier for other patients to get through to their GP surgery for help and advice at evenings and weekends, these initiatives have the potential to be a win-win-win for patients, their doctors and the NHS."

Dr Chaand Nagpul, chair of the British Medical Association's General Practice Committee, said: "These changes will need to be properly supported.

"The Government must take further action so that community, social and urgent care work in tandem to deliver truly holistic care to patients.

"Ministers must also deliver on their commitment to increase resources in the community so that there are more GPs, nurses and other health and social care services to provide co-ordinated care to the escalating number of patients who need care closer to home."

"This will enable GPs to be properly supported and have the time and ability to deliver the personalised care that patients deserve."

Dr Vicky Pleydell, Clinical Chief Officer, NHS Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby CCG, said: “On behalf of the CCG, I’d like to congratulate our local GPs on being awarded the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund.

“This is fantastic news for local people and a great opportunity to transform our healthcare system and deliver real benefits for our patients.

“The project is very much in line with the CCG’s aim of providing as much care as close to home as possible. We are looking forward to supporting the GPs throughout the next twelve months and seeing the Together as One Community project come to life.”