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GP workforce shrunk over the past year in major blow to 5,000 target



The number of GPs working in the NHS in England has dropped in the past year, striking a blow to health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s commitment of delivering 5,000 extra GPs by 2020.

The number of GP full-time equivalents including trainees fell to 34,495, down by 96 on September 2015, and this was even echoed in a drop in the headcount of GPs.

Despite NHS England and education bosses claiming ‘record numbers of doctors’ being recruited to GP training this year, this has not been enough to offset the rates of GPs leaving and changing workforce patterns.

The NHS Digital figures are billed as ‘provisional experimental’ after changes to the methodology of counting GP numbers last April. Last year’s report, which was the first to use the new methodology, revealed a 2% decrease in the number of full-time equivalent GPs.

But these latest figures strike an even greater blow for Mr Hunt’s commitment to delivering 5,000 more GPs ahead of the 2015 general election as they incorporate efforts made by the Government and NHS England to reach this target.

In January 2015, training bosses and GP leaders drew up a ’10-point plan’ for boosting the recruitment of new GPs and the retention of senior and mid-career doctors.

After years of stagnation HEE reported that a record number of doctors had opted for GP training, with numbers boosted by £20,000 incentive schemes and overseas placements.

However, these efforts have been countered by a higher number of GPs leaving the profession through early retirement or moving overseas, which has particularly affected the number of GP partners (see table below). 

GP leaders warned the latest figures showed the workforce crisis was set to worsen.

Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC deputy chair, said: ’These figures clearly demonstrate that the crisis in general practice is getting worse, not better. GP practices across England are struggling to provide enough appointments because they do not have the GPs to see the sheer number of patients coming through the surgery door.’

He added that the ‘disastrous situation’ was a sign that NHS England and the DH needed to increase the pace of investment in general practice, and warned against further ‘unfair denigration’ of hard stretched practices – such as Theresa May’s recent criticisms over the lack of uptake of extended hours working.’

Dr Vautrey said the fundamental facts were that ’too few medical graduates are choosing a career as a GP and many experienced GPs are opting to leave the NHS altogether.’

The health secretary’s 5,000 new GPs target has, in itself, been the subject of controversy. It was downgraded to 5,000 ’doctors in general practice’ – a change which allowed the Government to count GP trainees towards their target, despite them being supernumerary for workforce purposes.

Mr Hunt was also forced to admit that that there would be ‘flexibility’ in the target because some areas were particularly hard to recruit to.

A Department of Health spokesperson said:These statistics are four months old, and do not take into account the impact of all the actions we have recently taken to achieve our goal of 5000 more doctors in general practice by 2020, such as cutting red tape, paying some of GPs’ high insurance costs, increasing resources by £2.4 billion, as well as innovative new schemes to retain more GPs. Our latest figures show that we have more GPs in training now than ever before.’

 

How GP numbers have gone down over the past year

Total number of GPs in England

  September 2015- final including estimates September 2016 – including estimates Total change
Total      
All Practitioners (full time equivalent) 34,592 34,495 -96

Numbers of GPs leaving and joining the NHS in England

  October 2015 – March 2016 April 2016 – September 2016 Total

Joiners

     

All General Practitioners

1,355

2,817

4,172

GP Providers

218

420

 

Salaried/Other GPs

692

1,191

 

GP Registrars

438

1,201

 

GP Retainers

7

6

 

Leavers

     

All General Practitioners

1,767

2,442

4,209

GP Providers

546

668

 

Salaried/Other GPs

653

718

 

GP Registrars

565

1,046

 

GP Retainers

4

10

 

Source: NHS Digital, General and Personal Medical Services, England September 2015 – September 2016, Provisional Experimental statistics. Please note: the table on the number of GPs leaving and joining the NHS in England excludes locums, and counts those moving between practices as both a joiner and a leaver, so numbers don’t match up completely to the difference in GPs in the system.