Rebuild General Practice supporter Dr Euan Strachan-Orr reflects on his time at the recent party conferences and calls on politicians to work with GPs to rebuild general practice for good
Political party conference season may be over. But the urgent need to tackle problems in general practice is not going away.
I was in Manchester last month attending the Conservative Party Conference on behalf of the Rebuild General Practice campaign, which is a grassroots effort by GPs to make our voices heard and advocate for a general practice that puts patients first.
I was pleased to connect with a slew of MPs and ministers, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak himself, as well as many colleagues from different parts of the NHS. It was clear to me that the future of the health service is front of mind for many senior politicians. And it was important to show that GPs themselves are ready to work with those in power to rebuild general practice so it is fit for the future.
But there is much work to be done. The health secretary Steve Barclay spoke mainly of new investments into hospitals and social care, and the potential of new technology. This approach misses the crucial role that general practice plays – and can play in the future – in taking the pressure off the rest of the health system. He also committed to increasing medical places and apprenticeships, but made no mention of one of the biggest problems in general practice: retaining our existing workforce.
With increasing demand and dwindling staff numbers, the job of a GP is verging on untenable. Colleagues who had planned to work their whole career in general practice until retirement are leaving early in their droves due to stress, anxiety, and burnout.
I know from my work as a GP in Liverpool that colleagues are under more pressure than ever. I completed my GP training last year, and I have entered a profession on life support. It’s not the same profession I recognise from when I started GP training, let alone medical school. The work is harder, the days are longer, with no let-up in sight. No wonder so many newly qualified GPs are exploring options abroad in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. It’s hard not to be tempted by what they offer.
But patients across the country need newly qualified GPs to stay and provide care and continuity – and we know they want this. The required new blood to sustain our profession is simply not flowing. It’s not sustainable, and a wholesale rethink is required to retain GPs throughout the career spectrum.
Rebuild General Practice was also on the ground in Liverpool for the Labour Party Conference, where it was reassuring to see the party commit to the idea of the ‘family doctor’ – and prioritising the continuity of care that we know patients and GPs all desperately want to see.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting seemed alive to the possibilities that properly resourced general practice can deliver, not just for the quality of care that patients receive, but also for its ability to take the pressure off the rest of the system. Mr Streeting’s comments focused on supporting community care, training more GPs, and cutting red tape. Labour also made promises to recruit thousands more GPs.
But again, the problem of how to retain the existing workforce did not get a mention. To bring back the family doctor-style service that everyone wants to see – not just politicians, but patients and GPs, too –requires recognising the strain GPs are under, and acting in a concerted way to do something about it.
Since the establishment of the NHS in the 1940s, general practice has served as its bedrock – an immediate port-of-call for those in need of medical assistance. For decades, GPs have been the gateway to the wider NHS, ensuring patients are directed to the care and treatments they need.
But beyond that, we know our patients; we know when something is wrong, and we are there to mitigate before they even need to see a specialist. A strong general practice means a stronger NHS – freeing up hospital beds, not to mention doctors’ and patients’ time.
So, for the sake of patients and the future of the NHS as a whole, we are asking politicians of all parties to work with us to rebuild general practice. That means a sustainable long-term workforce plan that includes measures to retain existing GPs. It means ensuring we are adequately funding general practice, focusing on illness prevention instead of letting illness linger. And it means ensuring GPs have freedom and autonomy to do our jobs in the way we know is best for our patients.
As grassroots GPs, we are ready to do the hard work of building this future. Our presence at party conferences is just the start. We look forward to working with politicians of all parties, as well as other healthcare professionals and – most importantly – patients, to rebuild general practice for good.
Dr Euan Strachan-Orr is a GP in Liverpool and writes on behalf of Rebuild General Practice