We simply don’t have enough doctors to cope with the numbers of patients who need our services, says College Chair

College Chair Kamila Hawthorne wrote the following Opinion piece for yesterday’s Sunday Express as part of a special report headlined It’s time to place GPs at the heart of our NHS.

The two-page spread also quotes College President Clare Gerada and College Council member Sam Everington.

The College will continue to work with the media to promote the excellent patient care delivered by our members and their teams, despite immense workload and workforce pressures. We will also continue to defend our members against negative and unwarranted criticism.

The non-stop news coverage of everyday life in the NHS, with ambulances backing up and frail patients in hospital corridors in A&E, is shocking and deeply worrying. But what we don’t see so regularly on the news is the very real crisis in general practice.

General practice is buckling under huge strain, with patients finding it hard to get appointments despite GPs seeing anything between 40-60 patients (and sometimes more) a day. Millions of consultations are being delivered every month by GP teams, with the latest figures showing nearly 33 million delivered in November alone, 14% more than November 2019, and more than 41% of these are delivered on the same day they were booked.

We are the first port of call for the increased rates of common viruses this winter. This is in addition to delivering vital winter immunisation programmes and delivering interim care to the millions of patients on NHS waiting lists. Our workloads are ever-rising but we simply don’t have enough doctors to cope with the numbers of patients who need our services.

This isn’t just a seasonal challenge for GP teams, it is the reality all year round. General practice has been overstretched, under-funded, and chronically understaffed for well over a decade - by successive governments. The average full-time GP is caring for 120 more patients than they were in 2019 - yet over the same period, we have 737 fewer fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs working in the NHS (despite being promised an additional 6,000 GPs by 2024 in the Government’s manifesto). GPs are burning out under intense and sustained pressures, and this is affecting the safety of the care we can deliver to our patients. This trend is likely to worsen, with our own College surveys predicting a future mass exodus of 15,000 fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs in the next five years.

This is having a real impact on the time and care we want and are able to deliver to our patients, and GPs are just as frustrated as patients when they can’t get an appointment. We are on the same side. Politicians setting unrealistic targets for access to GP services won’t solve this problem, especially when services don’t have any of the resources to achieve it. It only serves to demoralise and blame GPs for things that our beyond our control.

For over a decade the College’s calls to address rapidly declining GP workforce numbers and escalating workloads have fallen on deaf ears. Collective pressure must be put on the Government to act now to turn the tide.

We must see a recruitment and retention strategy that goes above and beyond the 6,000 GPs promised in government’s manifesto pledge. We need a review and revamp of retention schemes, to support GPs in danger of burn out to stay in the NHS and create a way to allow newly retired GPs to return to clinical practice. It is imperative that we tackle workload in general practice to make it safe for practitioners as well as for patients. We also need funding for general practice to return to 11% of the total NHS spend, and more investment in our IT systems and premises, alongside steps to cut unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape so we can have more time with patients.

Now is the time to listen and rescue a neglected general practice service, so we can once again meet the healthcare needs of our patients as we have been trained to do and support wider NHS services. If the pressures in general practice aren’t eased, the rest of the NHS will collapse.

Further information

Actual appointment figures have been replaced by estimated figures to provide a more accurate representation of workload data.

RCGP Press office: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editors

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 54,000 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.