Patient safety in general practice could be ‘at risk’ – unless chronic shortage of GPs is turned around, with nearly 600 practices at risk of closure

Publication date: 18 September 2016

Patient safety in general practice across the UK could be ‘at risk’, if nothing is done to turn around the current chronic shortage of GPs, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners – with 594 practices across the UK at risk of closure by 2020 if more family doctors are not recruited.

In response, the RCGP is launching a ground-breaking new video and guide – which aim to help recruit thousands of additional foundation doctors, medical students and sixth form students into a career in general practice.
The RCGP says that as the population grows in size, and increases in age, there is a growing shortfall in the number of GPs – and estimates the total shortfall of GPs will stand at 9,940 by 2020.
The College says that unless drastic action is taken to ensure there are enough doctors in the workforce, thousands of patients could be forced to travel miles to their nearest GP practice or be left stranded with no family doctor at all.
It hopes that the video and guide will explode the myth perpetuated by TV programmes like Casualty, Holby City and 24 Hours in A&E that only doctors who work in hospital settings have an exciting and challenging role.
Another falsehood that the video and guide – both called Think GP – will try to address is the idea that circulates in certain parts of the medical world that the role of a GP is somehow run-of-the-mill, with family doctors simply treating coughs and colds.
The video and guide highlight the fact that GPs are expert medical generalists who have to able to treat whatever conditions their patients present with and that they are the only doctors who look after whole communities, looking after their patients throughout their lives – from the cradle to the grave.
The two Think GP products show how the role of the general practitioner is radically changing, with GP practices increasingly working together in federations, merging into super practices and GPs leading larger teams of doctors and other health workers.
The video and guide are the latest in a series of GP recruitment initiatives organised by the College, including regional roadshows, in partnership with Health Education England, and working with GP Societies in UK universities. RCGP Chair Dr Maureen Baker has also written to all Foundation Year doctors in England highlighting the challenge and stimulation of a career in general practice and encouraging them to sign up.
Their launch comes against the backdrop of a health service that is faced with a population that is getting older and growing in size – with a resultant increase in the number of people suffering from chronic, long-term conditions and multiple-illnesses.
GPs and their teams now carry out around 1.3m consultations a day. Yet despite research stipulating that workload has increased by 16% over the last seven years, the College estimates that the number of full time equivalent GPs across the UK has actually fallen to 35,589 from 35,990 in 2013/14.
The RCGP believes that each nation of the UK will have a substantial shortfall in the number of its full time equivalent GPs by 2020, predicting that:

  • England will have a deficit of 8,371 GPs
  • Scotland will have a deficit of 830 GPs
  • Wales will have a deficit of 424 GPs, and
  • Northern Ireland will have a deficit of 316 GPs.

The RCGP estimates that 594 practice are at risk of closure by 2020 due to the shortfall of GPs, as practices that are exclusively or largely run by family doctors aged fifty five or over are at risk of closure – due to the prevalence of early retirement. The 594 practices identified by the RCGP each has 75% or more of its GPs aged fifty five and over.
NHS England announced a plan in April to hugely increase resources going into general practice, with a target of expanding the GP workforce by 5,000 additional doctors and 5,000 other members of the team by 2020. It also pledged to boost investment in general practice by £2.4bn a year by 2020.
The NHS England and Health Education England plan – which tries to address the shortfall in GPs by expanding the workforce for doctors and other members of the team – is supported by the RCGP. The College sees it as recognition of the value that general practice brings to the NHS and patient care, and a step to secure the profession for the future.
The RCGP is trying to encourage the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to come up with their own plans to hugely boost GP workforces in each respective nation.
Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It is imperative that we recruit huge numbers of medical students and foundation doctors into general practice in order to keep the NHS on its feet. If we fail, there will be too few GPs to go round, practices will close, and patient safety in general practice will clearly be at risk.
“General practice is the cornerstone of the NHS, with 90% of patient contacts in the health service being conducted by family doctors and their teams. The GP Forward View is a lifeline for general practice in England, and if implemented correctly it paints a bright future for our profession – we need to work together to ensure this happens, and for equivalent plans to be announced across the UK.
“Despite the fact that general practice is critical to the success of the NHS there is a bizarre misconception in certain parts of the medical world that GPs merely treat coughs and colds.
“However, our Think GP video and guide explode this dangerous myth by showing that family doctors are expert medical generalists who have to manage and understand chronic long-term conditions and deliver the continuing care that our most complex of patients need.
“GPs look after patients throughout their lives – from cradle-to-grave – and are an important part of local communities, in both urban and rural settings. They are the bedrock of the NHS, and they look after the ‘whole person’, having to understand the patient’s physical, psychological and social circumstances.
“TV programmes, like Holby City and Casualty, might like to show hospitals as the only exciting places to be a doctor but the reality is very much different.  In fact, as NHS England says: ‘There is arguably no more important job in modern Britain than that of the family doctor’.
“As time progresses, a career as a GP will become more and more intellectually and medically challenging, diverse and fulfilling. GPs will have portfolio careers heading multi-disciplinary teams, leading work in areas from geriatrics to neurology, running ‘in-reach’ to hospitals and ‘outreach’ to patients’ homes.”

Further Information

Access the Think GP videos and guide here

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7574/7575/7633
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 52,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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