Exclusive An award-winning GP mental health support service had to turn down new patients for six weeks after being overwhelmed by demand last month, Pulse can reveal.
The Practitioner Health Programme in London said that although it has since been able to reopen to new self-referrals it is still experiencing high demand from overworked and burnt out GPs.
PHP medical director Professor Clare Gerada said that although there had been a ‘massive increase’ in attendance to the service, local NHS commissioners have held the budget flat since 2008.
PHP, which offers free and confidential access to psychological support and addiction services to GPs and dentists, is commissioned to care for just 150 practitioners per year but last year it helped 600 new patients who were predominantly GPs, according to Professor Gerada.
It comes as NHS England last year guaranteed that occupational health services would be available for all GPs in England, after sustained lobbying from Pulse’s Battling Burnout campaign.
However Pulse has since reported that gold-standard mental health services once funded by PCTs, including that offered to GPs in Devon and Cornwall, have had their funding pulled by NHS England local area teams.
NHS England has yet to release its final occupational health framework despite initially saying this would be completed by September 2014.
Although funded by £1 million per year, Professor Gerada said PHP’s budget was ‘far below’ the cost of covering the support needs for London’s GP and dentist population.
PHP’s latest annual report, for 2013/14, complained that the budget was ‘very limited’ and ‘vulnerable to fluctuations in spend caused by an increase in high-risk practitioner patients or any unexpected care needs’.
It added: ‘It has been estimated that the cost of doctors and dentists ill health in London exceeds £21m per annum.’
Professor Gerada told Pulse funding for GP mental health services had been cut all around the country, adding: ‘We’ve had no increased funding since 2008. We had 600 new patients last year but we are only commissioned for 150.’
She added: ‘We have seen a massive increase in attendance, such a vast increase that just a few weeks ago we had to shut our doors for a while, because of the demand. That’s not just GPs, but predominately GPs.’
Professor Gerada called on health secretary Jeremy Hunt to urgently review the health and wellbeing of the NHS workforce or risk a lawsuit from doctors falling ill under the pressures.
She said: ‘I think it will not be long before the NHS is sued for an industrial injury. To expect people to do 12 hours of patient-facing work, to work under the conditions we’re working in. It’s just intolerable.’
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘General practice is the foundation of healthcare services and we recognise the pressure GPs are under… Details of the occupational health offer for those on the national performers list are being developed, but we want to ensure that GPs have access to early occupational health assessment.’
A recent Pulse survey of GPs revealed that four in 10 GPs have taken or expect to take time off because of burnout as a result of increasing workloads and intense scrutiny.