Exclusive The number of GP vacancies at practices has doubled in the past year, with a Pulse analysis of almost 1,500 positions providing the starkest evidence yet of the recruitment crisis facing the profession.
A survey of 250 practices – covering 1,438 GP positions between them – found an average vacancy rate of 4.2%, with more than half the positions having been vacant for longer than three months.
Official figures on GP vacancies were not collected in 2011, with the NHS Information Centre currently considering whether to compile the data in future as part of a review of its statistical work. But figures published in 2010 showed an average vacancy rate of 2.1% in England, suggesting a steep rise in the last 12 months.
And the impression of a worsening shortage of GPs is reinforced by a further survey response, finding the number of applications for GP jobs has fallen by an average of 16% since the previous time a post was advertised and a quarter of practices reporting a fall of more than 50%.
Some 56% of practices reported having attempted to recruit a GP partner or salaried GP within the last year, but only two-thirds of those that had done so said they were able to fill the role with a satisfactory candidate first time round.
Dr Beth McCarron-Nash, GPC negotiator on workforce issues and a GP in St Columb Major, Cornwall, said with the NHS reforms underway many GPs were reluctant to commit to a position: ‘Doctors are choosing not to take a partnership or a substantive post because of the uncertainty at the moment in general practice. A lot of practices are also holding back because they do not know what is going to be happening.'
Dr Sharon Shmueli, a GP in Swindon, said: ‘We've been looking for three years to find the right person, and in the beginning we got maybe one or two applicants. There are not a lot of applicants around.'
Colleagues at her practice had been ‘completely swamped' with additional work during the protracted recruitment process, she said, adding: ‘The problem was not only recruiting but recruiting the right person. We found the level of expertise that we were expecting was not there.'
Dr Caroline Graas, a salaried GP at a practice in Formby, Merseyside, said until last September she had worked at another local practice where posts had been left vacant for up to five months, with difficulties in recruiting new GPs piling additional workload on staff: ‘Some of the locums were good, but it still leaves you in limbo.'
The survey found difficulty in filling positions had led to widespread disruption in practices, with 26% saying it had resulted in increased use of locums, 18% cutting appointments and one in 10 struggling to fill duty-doctor shifts.