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Health education chiefs call summit to tackle developing GP workforce crisis

Exclusive: Health education managers in the south west of England have arranged a crisis summit to tackle acute problems in the GP workforce, Pulse can reveal.

Health Education South West has written to primary care bodies about an urgent meeting in September, after admitting that despite its best efforts to recruit GP trainees it is ‘highly unlikely’ it will ‘find enough young doctors’ through its current recruitment drive.

It is hoped that the meeting will help identify workforce issues across primary care, and ‘establish a meaningful dialogue’ between organisations to tackle the issue, which has become ‘highly topical’ since the recent high-profile resignation of a practice in South Bristol, it said. Pulse reported in July that St Martin’s Surgery in Knowles had been forced to hand their contracts back to NHS England as a result of the recruitment crisis that has engulfed general practice.

The Government has mandated Health Education England to recruit 3,250 GPs into training by 2015 – though this deadline has been pushed back to 2016 in light of worse than expected application rates.

In July HEE announced it was running an unprecedented third recruitment round for GP trainees after Pulse revealed that as many as 40% of training places were going unfilled in some parts of the country. And the South West is far from having the worst fill rates of the Health Education regions – it’s currently seventh out of the 14 regions, with 6.5% of its available GP training places unfilled – compared to 37.5% in the East Midlands.

The letter sent out this month to CCGs, LMC chairs and CEOs, area teams and acute trust leads and signed by Health Education South West’s director of education and Quality, Derek Sprague, and Director of GP Education, Professor Bill Irish, states:

‘We would like to invite you to attend a meeting to discuss the current and developing local crisis in our primary care workforce, on the afternoon of Wednesday 24th September.’

Adding: ‘With the recent high profile resignation of a practice in South Bristol, this issue is of course highly topical locally and is likely to become more so in the months leading up to a general election.’

‘Whilst HESW has worked hard to progressively increase its recruitment of GP speciality trainees, it is increasingly clear that: It is highly unlikely that we will be able find enough young doctors to fill any further local expansions in training capacity.’

‘[and] A multi-agency approach is urgently needed to support and to reduce the loss of qualified GPs from the current workforce.’

It also calls for more primary care support staff, and wider involvement of social care to alleviate the burden on general practice.

An HEE spokesman said: ‘Health Education South West called a meeting with local NHS organisations to develop a better picture of the issues surrounding the GP workforce in their area to determine how best they can be addressed.’

‘The fill rate for GP training places for the South West is already above the national average but they are still working hard to further increase their recruitment of GP trainees.’

However Health Education England’s own figures show that this is the first time in five years that the South West has not filled at least 100% of GP training posts.

GPC negotiator Dr Beth McCarron Nash, representative for South and West Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, said the issue was not just to do with older GPs, but the expanding older patient demographic.

‘We’ve been highlighting this locally, certainly in Cornwall Vocational Training Scheme for the first time, this year, we have unfilled places.’

‘So I welcome that they recognise it as a crisis, it is a crisis, and this is just one small area. But it’s safe to say this is a UK issue and we need urgent national solutions like implementing the GP taskforce review in full.’

And Dr David Jenner, a GP in Cullompton, Devon and contract lead for the NHS Alliance told Pulse that the most important thing to tackle, for workforce in the South West, was the impending loss of experienced GPs.

He said: ‘It’s absolutely clear, the most important thing in the short term is to secure the retention of older GPs.’

‘I find lots of older GPs, and I’m not far off that myself,  still like the job but cannot cope with the intensity of workload and the continual vilification in the press, and the requirement to do silly bureaucratic things.

The suggestion to recruit more non-clinical staff to support GPs would be sensible, he added, if GPs were funded to employ more staff nurses to help manage this workload.

And he said of the letter: ‘I think it’s really good that, at last after years of GPs raising this issue, the penny has dropped.’