Most patients in the UK who want to see their own GP can no longer get an appointment with them. The Daily Telegraph reports that this is according to figures suggesting the days of the family doctor are over. The statistics show record numbers of patients struggling to even get through on the telephone, and increasingly long waits for an appointment. For the first time, the majority of patients who wanted to see a particular doctor were unable to do so, the survey of more than 770,000 patients shows.
The report says the research comes amid mounting evidence of a wider National Health Service (NHS) crisis, with waiting lists reaching an all-time high. Medics said the “worrying” situation was being fuelled by a dispute over pensions, with senior doctors increasingly refusing to work overtime, or opting for early retirement, to avoid high tax rates.
The figures show that the proportion of patients finding it difficult to get through to make a GP appointment has risen by 65% since 2012. The report says the annual GP survey show that in total, 31.7% struggled to make contact, compared with 19.2% seven years ago. More than half of those polled had a preferred GP. And of those just 48 per cent said they saw or spoke to them “always or almost always”, or “a lot of the time”.
The report says the figure is a fall from 50.2% in 2018. It is also a steep drop from 65% in 2012, although researchers said changes in the way the survey was carried out meant the figures were not directly comparable.
Rising numbers turned to A&E when their GP practices was closed the figures show. In total, 36.6% ended up at casualty wards in such circumstances, a rise from 32.9% in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of patients facing long waits in A&E has soared.
In June 2012 just two patients waited 12 hours on a trolley. Last month, the figure was 471, the report says the data from NHS England shows. In the last 12 months alone, the figure has risen by 376%.
The data also shows 4.4m on waiting lists – a rise of 300,000 in a year, up from 2.6m in 2012.
The report says the disclosures, in the height of summer, prompted concern about how the NHS will cope this winter, especially if Britain experiences the levels of flu recently seen during Australia’s winter.
Health officials promised to review access to GPs, in order to tackle waiting times. Dr Nikita Kanani, acting director of primary care for NHS England, is quoted in the report as saying: “We will look at making improvements to pre-bookable and same day GP appointments, reviewing patient feedback on face-to-face and online consultations, delivering greater choice and access to appropriate care for patients.”
From 2021, all patients will also have a new right to access their general practice through video consultations.
Meanwhile, the report says, the British Medical Association had urged ministers to change tax rules on pensions to persuade more doctors to stay in post. And Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said GPs needed more funding, in order to meet demand. “Patients are finding it increasingly difficult to access the services they need, when they need them, and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” She said the long waits were putting patient safety at risk.
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust, said in the report: “Our work shows that England is experiencing the first prolonged fall in GPs per person in 50 years, and the GP Patient Survey shows the relentless impact this is having on patients.
“Measures of how easy it is to get an appointment are sliding across the board: fewer than a third of people who hoped to be seen on the same day actually experienced this.
“For the first time, less than half of people who have a preferred GP say that they are actually able to make an appointment to see them.”
The report says over the past decade, the number of GPs taking early retirement has more than doubled, with 616 such cases last year. It came as the cap on how much savers can amass without being taxed fell from £1.8m in 2012 to £1m.
The hospital figures represent NHS performance at the start of summer and, the report says, senior medics raised fears that health services will be unable to cope if the UK is hit badly by “Australian flu”. Data from Australia shows 135,952 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu across the country so far this year, compared to a five-year average of 17,349 such cases by this stage in the year. So far, the number of deaths is almost three times that for the whole of the flu season last year.
Jessica Morris, research analyst at the Nuffield Trust, said the number of patients facing long trolley waits this June was higher even than in December last year. “In terms of performance, summer is becoming the new winter,” she warned.
The report quotes a spokesperson for NHS England as saying: “Hospitals are reporting continuing staffing and bed pressures. “Local areas across the NHS are now reviewing the extra staffing and capital investment in facilities and diagnostics they will need for the next five years, ahead of national decisions on these later this year.”