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Over two-thirds of GPs plan to leave or reduce hours, finds DH-backed study

Even ‘desirable’ areas of England are facing an ‘impending healthcare crisis’ as two in five GPs are planning to quit within five years, with researchers suggesting this has wider-reaching implications for workforce planning across the country.

The study, published today in the BMJ Open, also found that seven out of 10 GPs in the South West intend to change their working pattern to reduce patient contact in the next five years – either by leaving patient care, taking a career break or reducing their hours.

The University of Exeter researchers, whose work was funded by the Department of Health via the National Institute for Health Research, said that this ‘snapshot of low morale’ may point to a ‘deeper and more imminent crisis than previously anticipated’ with regard to GP shortages nationwide.

However, the Department of Health pointed out that the research, which included more than 2,000 GPs, was carried out last year, which could mean its GP Forward View £2.4bn rescue package for the profession may have moved things on.

Lead researcher Professor John Campbell, professor of general practice and primary care at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: ‘We carried out this survey because of a nationally recognised crisis in the shortage of GPs across the country, and our findings show an even bleaker outlook than expected for GP cover, even in an area which is often considered desirable, and which has many rural communities.

‘If GPs have similar intentions to leave or reduce their hours in other regions, as many are reporting, the country needs to take robust action more swiftly and urgently than previously thought.’

The research team sent surveys to 3,370 GPs across the South West, receiving responses from 2,248. Of these, more than half (54%) reported low morale, and this group was particularly likely to also say they were planning to quit the profession.

The researchers concluded that this highlighted ‘the magnitude of the potential GP shortage crisis that is imminently facing the region, and reflect the current state of general practice in the UK’.

Professor Campbell, who is also a practising GP, suggested that the ‘numerous Government-led initiatives’ which are under way to address recruitment would not ‘address the underlying serious malaise which is behind this data’.

He said: ‘We are in a perilous situation in England, with poor morale of the current GP workforce, and major difficulties with recruitment and retention of GPs reflected in the stark overall reduction in the GP workforce. Reactive, sticking-plaster approaches are not the answer.’

GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul told Pulse: ‘Whist the Government has been focusing on 5,000 more GPs, these findings highlight a far greater scale of workforce reduction.

‘The Government and NHS England need to focus on retaining doctors, not just looking at new recruits.’

The news comes after a UK-wide BMA survey of 16,000 GPs carried out two years ago found that 34% were thinking of retiring from the profession within five years. More than a quarter (28%) of respondents who currently worked full time said they were considering going down to part time.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chair, said she was ‘confident’ that last year’s £2.4bn NHS England rescue package for general practice ‘is that long-term solution’, and that the RCGP is therefore calling for it to be ‘implemented in full, swiftly and effectively’.

A DH spokesperson said: ‘This sample survey was carried out before we launched our world-leading plan to improve conditions in general practice – so it doesn’t take into account our steps to improve morale and retention by investing £2.4 billion more into primary care, making extra payments to GPs, and cutting red tape while increasing flexible working.’

GP numbers in decline

The worrying conclusion to the research study were underlined by the latest GP workforce figures, revealed in March.

These showed that number of full-time-equivalent GPs dropped by 1.3% – or 445 GPs – in the last three months of 2016 alone.

The statistics, which also showed headcount falling by 0.9% (390) in the same time period, come despite Government efforts to grow the overall GP workforce by 5,000 by 2020.

This has included the ‘10-point plan’ to boost recruitment and retention drawn up in January 2015, and comes despite HEE reporting a record number of doctors opting for GP training in 2016/17.