College sounds SOS for general practice – and calls for rescue plan

Publication date: 29 July 2021

An emergency rescue package is needed for crisis-torn general practice if patients are to receive the care they need once the pandemic is over, the UK’s leading GP warns today.

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, says that the job of GPs was ‘largely undoable’ even before COVID-19, but that general practice is now ‘at breaking point’.

He is calling on new Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid and the incoming Chief Executive of NHS England to ‘save’ general practice by implementing a five-point recovery plan to prevent GPs and other members of the practice team from burning out and ensure patients can continue to receive the care they need, well into the future.

Professor Marshall said: “The launch of our five point action plan sends out an SOS for general practice – and crucially, it also provides realistic solutions for halting the crisis and protecting the care of our patients and the wider NHS by investing in the hardworking GPs and their teams who provide that care.”

General Practice in crisis: An action plan for recovery calls for:

  1. A ‘ramping up’ of efforts to deliver the 2019 Conservative manifesto target of 6000 more full time equivalent (FTE) GPs in the next three years
  2. A system-wide programme to eradicate bureaucratic burdens and unnecessary workload by 2024, allowing GPs more time to care for patients and prevent GP burnout
  3. Improving the recruitment and integration of at least 26,000 other members of staff into the general practice workforce by 2024
  4. General practice infrastructure that is fit for purpose by 2024, to allow GPs to deliver care in a safe way from modern buildings and using reliable technology
  5. GPs to have a strong voice in integrated care systems in order to eliminate the waste associated with fragmented services, and in designing care for the communities they serve

Professor Marshall said: “GPs and their teams have played a pivotal role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, delivering essential services to patients and leading the COVID vaccination programme - two thirds of all vaccinations have been delivered in primary care.

“Even before the pandemic, millions of patients a week were seen in general practice and GPs were already under immense workload and workforce pressures. But these pressures are now unsustainable and must be urgently addressed as we move beyond the ‘emergency’ pandemic period and GPs deal with the aftermath of COVID in their local communities -  including ‘long COVID’ and the additional mental and physical health problems it is causing in patients of all ages.

“We simply do not have enough GPs to meet the needs of a growing and ageing population, with increasingly complex conditions, on top of managing the fallout and work backlog from the pandemic. If general practice collapses, the rest of the NHS will follow not far behind it.”

Data from the Research and Surveillance Centre, run by the College and Oxford University, shows consultations by GPs have been rising since last summer, and have been above historic levels since the end of April this year. Consultations rates were 11% higher in June 2021 than they were in June 2019, and are at near record levels despite the summer historically being a period of lower demand.

However, far from hitting targets for GP numbers, the number of fully qualified GPs in England has fallen while the population grows. The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs fell by 1,307 (4.5%) between September 2015 and March 2021.

Workload pressures and burnout are already impacting on GPs. Six in ten GPs say their mental health has deteriorated in the last year - and 63% say they expect things to get worse over the next five years. This is causing high numbers of GPs to leave the profession and a recent RCGP survey found that 34% of GPs expect to leave within five years - a quarter due to stress and burnout - meaning over 14,000 GPs could be lost from frontline patient care.

Professor Marshall continued: “The problems we have identified in our action plan show that pressures in the NHS are not just confined to hospitals, yet if we invest in general practice, the entire NHS reaps the benefit.

“General practice has been running on empty for too long. Despite the enormous strain under which GPs and their teams have been working, the latest independent GP patient survey reveals patients’ positive experiences. This is a testament to the efforts of GPs and their teams but the situation can’t continue for much longer without serious consequences.

“We need an expanded workforce with the appropriate support and premises if we are to improve access, reduce health inequalities, ensure patient safety, and give GPs more time to care for and build trusting relationships with their patients.

“We are offering the new Secretary of State and the incoming leader of the NHS in England ready-made solutions to the problems that have beset general practice for more than a decade - our proposals will improve the care of patients for generations to come.

“We now need urgent action and for those solutions to be implemented.”

Read the action plan.

Further Information

(For media only)

RCGP Press office – 020 3188 7633/7494/7574

Out of hours: 020 3188 7659 

press@rcgp.org.uk

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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