- Posted Tuesday January 11, 2022
Over 100 full-time equivalent GPs have left general practice in the last six months alone, while registered patients have increased by approximately half a million.
According to NHS Digital statistics, there were 27,647 fully qualified FTE GPs in England in November 2021, down 104 from June. The number of patients registered with general practice in England increased by 478,856 to just over 61.3 million over the same time, leaving the typical FTE GP with 2,218 patients, up 1.2 percent in six months.
The BMA cautioned that doctors had been "stretching themselves thinly" for years, but that this had never been more apparent than during the epidemic, with demand increasing. Dr Kieran Sharrock, the Deputy Chair for England, cautioned that "doing more with fewer people is not safe or sustainable," and asked for long-term solutions to safeguard an exhausted workforce.
The new findings revealing a drop in GP numbers come as MPs call on the government to 'wake up' to the NHS's staffing issue, saying that the problem predates the epidemic but has been exacerbated by it.
According to a report from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, the government and NHS England must "produce a broader national health and care recovery plan by April 2022, that goes beyond the elective backlog to emergency care, mental health, primary care, community care, and social care."
It emphasises the surge in demand for GP services caused by the pandemic, with practices scheduling more appointments in recent months than in corresponding months in 2019 - with tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccines delivered on top of this increased workload.
Despite the fact that more than half of GP visits have been conducted in person since the epidemic began, general practice has come under fire from lawmakers and elements of the media over access to face-to-face appointments.
The drop in GP numbers comes at a time when the profession is under severe strain, with rising demand for consultations, fueled in part by long delays for hospital care due to the COVID-19 backlog. Since September 2015, when the government originally promised to recruit an additional 5,000 GPs, England has lost the equivalent of over 1,750 full-time, fully-qualified GPs, with over 300 lost in the last year alone.
Meanwhile, GPs warned this week that an increase in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant has 'shredded' the general practice workforce, with considerable numbers of employees out of work and several practices facing closure.
Professor Martin Marshall, leader of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the NHS backlog was putting strain on the system, with GPs caring for patients as they waited for hospital treatment or procedures. He cautioned that GPs' health and welfare were being harmed by the 'constant and growing burden' in general practice.
'The current NHS pressures are not limited to hospitals,' he stated. 'Throughout the epidemic, GPs and our colleagues have been at the forefront of providing safe and appropriate treatment, ensuring patients receive the care and services they require while managing complicated mass vaccination programmes.' However, as bad as the COVID-related backlog is, the major difficulties confronting the NHS predate the epidemic.
Last year, BMA leaders called on the government to be "honest" about the GP workforce, as politicians have claimed that the workforce has grown despite data showing a fall in the number of fully trained, full-time equivalent GPs in recent years. In evidence to the health and social care select committee, Sajid Javid conceded that the government was not on course to meet its election promise of increasing the number of FTE GPs by 6,000 by 2024.
'The epidemic has put great challenges on the NHS, but we are determined to assist dedicated professionals to ensure people get the care they need,' a DHSC spokeswoman said.
Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary, and now the Health and Social Care Committee chair said: 'The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8m patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.
'However, our report finds that the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies, and no sign of any plan to address this.'