Unacceptably long waiting times to see GPs could endanger Britons’ health and have ultimately become a national crisis, the chair of the Royal College of GPs warns.
New RCGP analysis of NHS England’s biannual GP patient survey reveals that one in six patients are forced to wait at least seven days before they can see a GP or practice nurse. Such increasingly intolerable waits for appointments jeopardise patients’ health because there’s a higher risk that illnesses may not be detected quickly enough and opportunities to prevent them could be missed, said Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP).
The RCGP’s research indicates that patients across Britain will have waited for a total of 58.9 million GP consultations for a week or longer by the end of 2014 – a drastic rise of almost 50 percent from the 40 million who were forced to wait that long in 2012. Describing the statistics as “devastating”, Baker said waiting times are expected “to get even worse over the year ahead.” Baker argued there are simply too few GPs to cater for rising demands on their services, and doctors are increasingly overworked as British patients continue to suffer the consequences.
“Expecting patients to wait a week before they can be seen by their GP is unacceptable. We cannot gamble with people’s health in this way. Unless we invest substantially in expanding the GP workforce, general practice is at risk of going into meltdown, with the profession’s ability to deliver decent patient care increasingly compromised,” Baker said.
The percentage of Britons forced to wait for GP consultations longer than a week has risen steadily in recent years, according to NHS England’s GP patient surveys. While it was 13 percent in 2011, this figure had risen to 14 percent at the close of 2013. By mid-2013, it had increased to 15 percent and by mid-2014 it had jumped to 16 percent, the surveys revealed.
A separate opinion poll, commissioned by the RCGP, revealed that 50 percent of the 1,001 adults who were surveyed endorsed the view that current waiting times for family doctors were a “national disgrace”. Twenty-nine of the respondents said the last time they sought a GP appointment, they were forced to wait a week. And a mere 23 percent thought there are enough GPs to cater for the needs of the country’s growing and ageing population.
Almost 67 percent of those surveyed said GPs’ attempts to see 60 patients a day threatened the quality and level of care such family doctors can provide, while 60 percent suggested that GPs needed more NHS funding. Although Britain’s Department of Health has said it allocated £1 billion in “extra funding” to the NHS in the past year, the vast majority of this money was channeled into the nation’s hospitals.
Heavy workloads for GPs and an associated hazard of burnout is estimated to be a key cause of the decline in newly qualified UK doctors choosing to go into general practice. To compound matters, “the growing numbers of qualified GPs are choosing to emigrate, retire early or change medical specialty” in the face of “ballooning workloads and longer hours in surgery”, the RCGP says.
The RCGP estimates that the situation in Britain has become so desperate that over 1,000 GPs will be abandoning the profession annually by 2022, and the number of unfilled GP positions has almost quadrupled since 2010.
“Unless we invest substantially in expanding the GP workforce, general practice is at risk of going into meltdown – with the profession’s ability to deliver decent patient care increasingly compromised,” Baker said.
In response to Britain’s growing crisis in general practice, the RCGP and the National Association for Patient Participation (NAPP) have launched a campaign called, “Put patients first: Back general practice,” in an effort to increase the share of the NHS budget for general practice over the next three years.
Baker warns that general practice in Britain is “crumbling before our very eyes”, and the government needs to take urgent action. In an effort to encourage a policy shift to deal with the crisis, Baker and Patricia Wilkie, Honorary President and Chair of NAPP, issued petitions bearing almost 300,000 signatures from GPs, patients, and other practice colleagues to Downing Street this week.
In a recently published manifesto, the RCGP have also issued a number of policy demands to the government. The College called upon the government to commit to training 8000 extra GPs throughout England, and to incentivise young trainee GPs – issuing monetary bonuses to those who work in “under-doctored or deprived areas”.
Dr Mike Bewick, deputy medical director for NHS England, defended the government’s record, however. “GPs are working hard, but patients should be able to get appointments,” he said. “We want to give frontline GPs in clinical commissioning groups the power to invest more in primary care, while also modernising the way GPs work, with greater use of telephone, email and video consultations, as well as more flexible appointment times, including opening in the evenings and at weekends.”