More patients are paying to see a private GP due to longer NHS waiting times, with a private GP provider reporting a surge in the number of people requesting its services.
Spire Healthcare, which operates a network of private GPs, reported a 41% like-for-like increase in the number of GP appointments it provided compared to last year.
It said this is due its GP services experiencing ‘a strong growth’ with patients ‘attracted by efficient access’ to a GP near to where they live.
GPs have told Pulse that workload and workforce pressures on general practice mean that patients are forced to wait longer to see their GP and are turning to private services instead.
The latest NHS Digital data on GP appointments carried out in June showed that 2m appointments were delivered between fifteen and 21 days after they were booked.
RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said that ‘enormous’ pressures on general practice mean that many patients are waiting longer than they should to see a GP and that the country needs to guard against the creation of a ‘two tier’ system that ‘favours those who can afford to pay and disadvantages patients who can’t’.
She told Pulse: ‘It would be inappropriate for us to comment on data released by private businesses, but we are always saddened to hear that patients are turning to private services and paying for care that they are entitled to receive free of charge on the NHS.
‘Unfortunately, the enormous workload and workforce pressures that general practice is currently buckling under mean that many patients are having to wait far longer than they should to see a GP – and we share their frustrations.
‘General practice is delivering tens of millions of appointments per month, 9% more than before the pandemic, but now with 952 fewer fully qualified, full-time GPs than in 2019.
‘As long as we have such a substantial deficit of GPs, we won’t be able to resolve the issues in access, which is why we need urgent, significant investment in our family doctor service, including retention initiatives to encourage existing GPs to stay in the profession and prevent them from burning out.’
She also said that the failure by the government to provide resilience funding to relieve pressures on general practice this winter ‘will exacerbate these issues further’.
Professor Hawthorne added: ‘A strong general practice is not just a benefit to patients but relieves the burden on many other branches of the NHS, preventing unnecessary hospital attendances and admissions.
‘We also need to guard against the creation of a ‘two tier’ system that favours those who can afford to pay and disadvantages patients who can’t.
‘The NHS was set up to provide universal healthcare, free at the point of need and the public are still strongly in favour of this. Greater support and funding for general practice is the best way of ensuring this continues.’
Dr Nafeesa Arshad, a GP in Bristol, told Pulse: ‘With the increased demand and increase in waiting times patients are seeking private specialist care more.
‘With the wait times, for example, being longer than a year for ENT, neurology and four years for ADHD referrals, patients turn to private care.
‘I would say they attend private specialist more than private GPs but that maybe because I see it from the side of an NHS GP, so I am involved in those referrals to a private specialist so would know and hear of those more often.’
Spire Healthcare acquired The Doctors Clinic Group in December last year, which provided occupational health services to over 700 corporate clients and operated 22 private GP clinics.
It reported an increase in private revenue of 10.4% compared to last year.
Its chief executive Justin Ash said: ‘In line with our strategy to develop adjacent services, we acquired The Doctors Clinic Group last year and the business is performing well.
‘Demand for easily accessible private GP services continues to soar and our occupational health services are a key platform for employers seeking to retain staff and support their health needs.
‘UK healthcare is entering an era of renewed choice as demand for healthcare diagnosis and treatment remains strong.’
Earlier this week, a new national poll showed that nearly half of people who have used private healthcare said that being unable to get an NHS appointment quickly enough was a factor in their decision.
The Going Private report, setting out the answers to a survey of over 2,000 people, published by the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN), showed a ‘continuing difficulty’ in accessing NHS care.
It also showed evidence of a generational shift in attitudes towards private healthcare, with younger people (between 18 and 24) being the most likely to have actually used the private sector (4 in 10 have already done so).
Nearly three quarters of people under 34 would consider using private healthcare if they needed it, and are the most likely group to have accessed private GP services particularly, the report said.