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Health secretary announces independent review to assess gaps in GP workforce

A new GP workforce review will establish how many GPs need to be trained and deployed to each area in order to cope with future pressure on the service, it was announced today.

The review, announced today at the annual RCGP conference, would end the current ‘guesswork’ on which current efforts as based, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a speech at the event.

Health Education England (HEE) has been tasked with leading the review, which will conclude not before the general election but before the spending round of the next Parliament.

It comes after health education chiefs released the results of the GP Taskforce review just over two months ago, which had been set up by the Department of Health to recommend how the system could achieve the Government’s target of 3,250 trainees a year.

In today’s speech, Mr Hunt admitted to a shortage of GPs but also said there was ‘1,000 new GPs’ since the Coalition Government took office in 2010.

Mr Hunt said: ‘Clearly we don’t have enough GPs. The number of GPs has actually gone up by about a thousand over the past four years, but we need to do much better if we are going to cope with the challenge of an ageing population. By 2020, we’ll have a million more people people over the age of 70 and that is a huge jump in the pressure that the NHS, particularly you on the frontline, are going to face.’

He added: ‘We all know we need more GPs. [But current] estimates are based on guesswork. That is why I have asked Health Education England to do an independent study on what exactly do we need, area by area. We need to know exactly where we are underdoctored and by how much.’

Aside from GP numbers, the HEE review will also challenge the traditional model of working, as Mr Hunt revealed it would look at ‘other workforce models’.

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Mr Hunt said: ‘That study needs to take into account other workforce models. Maureen [Baker] and I had a very good trip to the United States where we looked at the role of physician and medical assistants and I think they do have a role in reducing pressure but we need to understand in a scientific way to what extent they have a role.’

But it was Mr Hunt’s statistics that were met with rebukes from delegates at the conference, who pointed out that while absolute GP numbers may have risen, the number of GPs per patient declined.

Dr Mark Purvis, a GP in Bradford, highlighted latest statistics, showing that the number of GPs per 10,000 patients has fallen since 2009 from seven to 6.6, and asked: ‘When are you going to be honest that there has been a fall in GP numbers?’

Also speaking in the question-and-answer session with Mr Hunt, Kent-based GP Dr Stephanie di Giorgio said GPs were ‘exhausted’ and ‘frankly furious’ with the Government for stoking demand from patients.

Dr DiGiorgio said: ‘The elephant in the room is well known to all of us who actually work in general practice every day, the ever-increasing inappropriate demand from patients. [But] instead of addressing it you and the press make it worse by continually denigrating general practitioners and encouraging [patients] to be ever more demanding.’

The RCGP has used the conference to call for ‘urgent action’ from the Government to address the GP recruitment crisis, as it warned that 500 practices could close in England next year amid a wave of retirements.

It comes as the GP Taskforce report released by HEE in July recommended that over 2,000 hospital doctor training places were scrapped to make way for GP training places.

Mr Hunt faced criticism in June this year when he hailed the rise in the number of GP appointments during this Parliament in a House of Commons health debate.