Grandstanding ministerial conference announcements often garner cynical responses in much the same way that giant festering slurry pits overflowing with toxic diarrhoea tend to elicit wrinkled noses, and Mr Hunt’s promise of 5,000 extra GPs by 2020 certainly had the elite ranks of the medical commentariat doubtfully sniffing their pomanders. So it’s with disappointment but no great sense of surprise that we now discover he’s on course to undershoot his target by more than 50%. As readers will be acutely aware, general practice is already circling what I call the Dawlatly Vortex of Doom, after the erstwhile Pulse blogger’s infographic depicting the perfect storm of increased workload, decreased morale and workforce decimation spiralling ominously into one another.
Just wait till half the output of the nation’s medical schools flies off to Australia
We’ve been here before, of course. In 2004, the Department of Health responded to a similar GP recruitment crisis by significantly increasing take home pay and reducing hours of clinical responsibility. The fact that these changes were introduced largely by accident does nothing to detract from their efficacy in attracting thousands of doctors (including a brighter-eyed, bushier-tailed, pre-burnout iteration of yours truly) into primary care. Mr Hunt’s solution, sadly, is somewhat different. He’s chosen instead to start a self-proclaimed nuclear war with the junior doctors he needs to make up the missing 5,000.
There’s a photo doing the rounds at the moment that ought to strike fear into the heart of anyone with a vested interest in the survival of general practice, which basically means anyone who has ‘being old and sick in the UK at some point’ on their to-do list. A lecturing junior doctor asked his medical student audience to raise their hands if they intended to leave the UK after foundation training; the resulting picture looks like he’s inadvertently wandered into the AGM of the Alan Shearer goal celebration re-enactment society.
It’s hardly rocket science. If you’re having trouble recruiting, it makes sense to improve pay and conditions until your potential workforce responds. What you don’t want to do is launch into the bitterest industrial dispute in living memory with the very people you’re hoping to attract. If you think a shortfall of 3,000-odd GPs is bad, just wait till half the output of the nation’s medical schools flies off to Australia. Even a PR man of Mr Hunt’s indubitable skills won’t be able to wipe the stink off that.
Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @PeteDeveson