The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has lost the equivalent of 1,000 full-time GPs in the past year as “unbearable” workload pressures and funding shortfalls drive out doctors. The Independent reports that the figures have been described as “gravely concerning” by doctors’ leaders, who warn that the shortage will lead to increased waiting times at surgeries already struggling to cope with over-subscribed patient lists.
While there are around 41,324 doctors working in general practice, 500 fewer than two years ago, the pressures of the job mean they are increasingly working less than the NHS definition of “full-time”, opting instead for freelance work.
The Department of Health is quoted in the report as saying that more GP trainees are in the pipeline, and it has plans to allow GPs to work flexibly, but there has been a steady decline in GP numbers since March 2016. The latest provisional figures show no sign of this slowing.
The report says despite £20,000 incentives to attract trainees and attempts to hold on to senior staff, the NHS is now 1,200 GPs further away from its target of recruiting an extra 5,000 GPs by 2020 than when it was first set by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in September 2015.
The Department of Health baseline at that time was 34,592 full-time GPs, but two years on the September 2017 figures show overall numbers stand at 33,302. But this overall total also includes GPs in training and the growing proportion of GPs working freelance or part-time as locums to better control their workload.
The report says a footnote from NHS Digital warns this overall figure is artificially inflated by changes in how numbers are reported, which saw 300 extra GPs added overnight. “The subsequently higher GP locum numbers reported in March 2017 are not comparable to previous figures in the time series due to indications that this additional guidance has led to more accurate reporting of GP locum staff,” NHS Digital says.
The biggest decrease has been among GP partners, who make up the bulk of the workforce, falling from 21,937 in 2015 to 20,234 this September. This is offset slightly by an increase of around 300 full-time equivalent salaried GPs, who are employed by practices on permanent contracts, and locums.
Locums can earn significant amounts with many practices struggling to fill vacancies, and they are able to book their work which makes it a popular for GPs with families or those looking to take on other “portfolio” roles.
GP representatives from the British Medical Association are quoted in the report as saying that the continued decline was “not a surprise” because, despite the pledged funding increases, “this is just not reaching practices”.The Independent report