GP practices delivered 26% more face-to-face appointments in September than the previous month, official data shows.
The latest NHS Digital GP appointments data, published today, showed that in-person GP appointments in England rose 3.6m from 13.7m in August to 17.3m in September.
But the data showed that the proportion of face-to-face appointments out of the total number of appointments offered has risen just three percentage points, from 58% in August to 61% in September.
The number of appointments offered overall – excluding Covid vaccinations – have also risen by 20%. An estimated 28.7m appointments were offered last month, compared with 23.9m in August.
When Covid vaccinations are included, appointments rose by 15% from 25.5m to 29.2m, according to the experimental data. The number of vaccinations fell by around a million from 1.5m in August to around 550,000 in September.
Lincolnshire LMC medical director Dr Kieran Sharrock told Pulse that while local numbers of appointments have also gone up, the proportion of those that are in-person has ‘consistently’ hit 60-65% for the past few months.
He said: ‘We’ve not changed anything in Lincolnshire and we’re still providing a really good service with face-to-face appointments where they’re clinically necessary.
‘Clinicians are doing the right thing by setting who needs to see the patient for the patient’s needs and if they don’t need a face-to-face then they can be dealt with remotely by telephone or eConsult.’
He added: ‘If it’s clinically necessary then we’ll see you face-to-face and 65% of the time, we’re assessing that that is necessary.’
Doncaster LMC chief executive Dr Dean Eggitt warned that there is a ‘big question mark over the reliability of the data’, but that the current figures are ‘probably a more accurate reflection of what we’re actually doing’ than previous datasets.
He told Pulse: ‘General practice has put a lot of effort in over the past months in particular to try to more accurately reflect the contacts with patients that we’re having.
‘In the past, because we’ve never been judged on this, we’ve seen patients and not even necessarily recorded it on our systems. We’ve slotted them in and haven’t added it as an appointment. But now because there is such a need to show people what we are doing, our appointments are probably going to be more reflective of reality.’
He added: ‘I don’t think we’ve changed what we’re doing, I think we’re just trying to reflect it better in our computer systems.’
NHS Digital said in its accompanying notes that the experimental data ‘does not show the totality of GP activity [and] workload’ or the ‘complexity’ of the work carried out.
Meanwhile, the number of appointments conducted by a GP rather than another member of practice staff has risen by around 2m (18%), from 12.3m in August to 14.5m last month.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said the new data ‘highlight just how extremely hard GPs and our teams are working, caring for patients in their communities and alleviating pressures elsewhere in the NHS’.
He added that the Government must ‘urgently’ address the ‘intense workforce pressures’ in general practice, starting by ‘tackling “undoable” workload to prevent burnout’.
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘These latest figures show that general practice is working hard to ensure that patients get the care they need with over 17 million face-to-face appointments in September – the highest number since the start of the pandemic – and over 3.5 million more than in August.’
Last month, the data revealed that GPs delivered five million more appointments in August this year compared with the same month last year.
At the time, the BMA said the figures show GPs are ‘working harder than ever’ and are dealing with ‘even more’ patients than before the pandemic.
It comes as NHS England this month announced a ‘support package’ for GPs that set out an expectation for practices to increase appointment numbers, among other things.
It also said that ICSs must submit a list of the 20% of practices in their area with the lowest levels of face-to-face appointments to face ‘immediate’ action.
LMCs in Essex have said that they are ‘looking at every possible challenge’ to NHS England’s ‘poor quality’ data on access to GP practices.