A lack of investment and workforce planning stretching back years now means that general practice is unsafe for many patients and staff, in particular GPs. A new poll has reported that more than 80% of GPs believe that patients are being put at risk when they come into their surgery for an appointment and data from a mental health charity for NHS staff shows 60-70% of those who phone for help are GPs.
A new campaign, launched this week, plans to pressurise the government to fund general practice properly and deliver on its commitment to deliver an additional 6,000 GPs in England by 2024. The campaign notes that “in 2019, the UK Government promised to deliver a workforce plan for General Practice and the NHS in England. In 2022, we are still waiting.”
The Rebuild General Practice campaign, funded by the BMA and GPDF and supported by Jeremy Hunt MP, chair of the Health Select Committee, also demands that ministers and health leaders tackle the factors driving GPs out of the profession, such as burn out, and create a plan to reduce GP workload and improve patient safety.
The new poll of 1,395 GPs, released by the campaign, found only 13% said their practice was safe for patients all the time. Concerns for patient safety were expressed by 85% of the respondents, with 2% saying patients were “rarely” safe, 22% saying they were safe “some of the time”, and 61% saying they were safe “most of the time”. Asked if they thought the risk to patient safety was increasing in their surgery, 70% said it was.
GPs said staff shortages and not enough time in appointments were the main factors affecting patient safety. With 86% of GPs saying they did not have enough time in consultations with patients and 77% of GPs feeling that GP shortages put patient safety at risk.
The negative effect on GP’s mental health and wellbeing is also evident, Dr Kieran Sharrock, a GP based in Lincoln and deputy chair of the BMA England’s GP Committee, speaking at the campaign’s launch said:
“One survey from last July found that 51 per cent of GPs are suffering from burnout, depression, or other mental strain. And over the last year, the equivalent of 279 fully qualified, full-time GPs have left the workforce altogether.”
Recent data shows that on average GPs are conducting 37 appointments every day – almost 50 per cent more than the recommended number of 25.
Speaking to the House of Commons Committee on Social Care this week, Professor Dame Clare Gerada, said that GPs were 60-70% of those that contacted a confidential mental health support service in the first year of the pandemic. She called for a CQC-style, arms-length body to hold the NHS to account over GP and other staff burnout, and that mental health should be ‘as important’ to the NHS as ‘finance’.
This week also saw the start of a parliamentary inquiry into the future of general practice. At the first oral session, Dr Sharrock, leader of the Rebuild General Practice campaign and deputy chair of the BMA England’s GP Committee, noted that the criticism and negativity about GPs and general practice must end if the NHS wants to retain the doctors we have and recruit more, particularly the constant criticisms about seeing patients face-to-face:
“The evidence is that actually GPs throughout the pandemic did, and currently are, seeing patients face-to-face – with 60.3% of our appointments being just that”.
A result of the assumption that GPs are not seeing patients in-person is that many practices are now seeing an increase in abuse, which has a serious impact on doctors’ welfare and ultimately drives more out of the profession, further escalating the staffing crisis.
Back in 2015, it was Jeremy Hunt that pledged to increase the number of GPs in England by 5,000 by 2020. A target that was never met. Then Boris Johnson promised in the 2019 general election to boost the GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024-25. However, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has admitted that that pledge will not be delivered either.
Despite the crisis in general practice and the calls for more funding from the BMA and others, there was nothing for general practice in the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s spring budget.
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