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It might be GP-bashing, but the Mail's story matters

It’s been so long since we had a proper GP-bashing story, we’d almost forgotten what it looked like.

By Steve Nowottny

It's been so long since we had a proper GP-bashing story, we'd almost forgotten what it looked like.

But today's Daily Mail front page had the works. ‘The GP earning £380,000 a year' screamed the four-deck headline, with the rest of the article continuing in similar vein.

‘GPs take home ‘jaw-dropping' sums thanks to bonuses and overtime payments,' we were told.

‘The investigation found one GP earning £380,000 a year and a number pocketing more than £300,000.'

The Patients Association and the Taxpayers' Alliance – the Mail's go-to guys for outrage over GP pay – were suitably scathing.

‘You begin to wonder how on earth GPs can earn that sum,' said Michael Summers, vice chairman of the Patients Association.

‘With many people struggling even to get appointments it is ludicrous that GP pay has soared,' added Matthew Elliot, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance. ‘The pay and perks of every GP should be published to let taxpayers assess if we're getting good value.'

Wait a minute - publishing figures on GP pay? That sounds like a good idea. Why on earth don't we do that? Then taxpayers will be able to assess if they're getting good value.

The answer, of course, is that we already do. The NHS Information Centre publishes official figures on GP pay on a regular basis, and while they're always a couple of years behind, the delay reflects the time needed to triple-check the figures against an agreed formula to ensure that they are truly representative.

And unsurprisingly, this far more sober approach presents a very different picture. The latest confirmed figures, published this May and for the 2006/7 financial year, showed that GP partners took home an average of £107,667. That's less than a third off what the Daily Mail's readers now think their family doctor earns – and what's more, it's a decrease.

That's right: for the most recent year for which we have official figures, GP pay actually fell, by 2.1%.

Pulse's readers, of course, will already be familiar with all this, and with the response issued by the BMA, which pointed out, not unreasonably, that many of the Mail's figures represented total practice income rather than take-home pay. But just because the figures are misleading, it doesn't mean the Mail story doesn't matter. Like it or not, it does – and for two reasons.

Firstly, the Daily Mail is a hugely influential paper. It has a readership of more than 2 million, but more than that, it shapes the national news agenda. ‘GPs paid too much' was a narrative GP leaders could have been forgiven for hoping was dead and buried. Now, thanks to follow-up articles in the Telegraph, Evening Standard and the Sun, it's back with a bang.

And secondly… well, the figures may be inflated, but do they nonetheless raise some real questions. It might be due to rural payments, dispensing income or another, unspecified reason. But the GP in Norfolk who, even after expenses of all kinds are deducted, takes home £310,000 a year is doing very well for his or her self indeed.

In the face of a withering Daily Mail onslaught, GPs understandably stick together. But the article does highlight a real funding disparity. And while solidarity for the profession is important, in private, practices struggling to balance the books in the face of MPIG phase-outs and QOF prevalence changes might be entitled to raise an eyebrow or two.

'Just because the figures are misleading, it doesn't mean the Mail story doesn't matter. Like it or not, it does.' By Steve Nowottny

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