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Analysis by the Nuffield Trust for the BBC has revealed that the NHS is seeing the first sustained fall in GP numbers in the UK for 50 years.
The figures highlight how the number of GPs per 100,000 people has fallen from nearly 65 in 2014 to 60 last year, the first time there has been such a drop since the 1960s.
With patient groups claiming a lack of GPs is causing real difficulties in making appointments, there have been reports of waits of up to seven weeks for a routine appointment, while those needing urgent appointments have been forced to queue outside practices in the early morning to guarantee to be seen.
NHS chiefs maintain that more GPs are being trained and extra support staff recruited to work alongside them, but the Nuffield Trust data shows that there has now been four consecutive years of falls, with the biggest drops being seen in England. The fall in GPs from 64.9 per 100,000 to 60 per 100,000 means the average doctor now has 125 more patients to look after than they did in 2014.
The Nuffield Trust believes another 3,500 GPs would be needed to get the NHS back to where it was in 2014.
Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "These figures are disheartening but will be unsurprising for GPs – and their patients – across the country who are feeling the impact of relentless workforce pressures in general practice on a daily basis. Whilst we wait for the next generation of family doctors to enter the workforce, existing GPs and our teams are struggling to manage escalating workloads without enough time or the resources to deal with them.
"Demand for GP services is escalating both in terms of volume and complexity – and when this is compounded by falling GP numbers, it creates a perfect storm that is leading to GPs becoming stressed and burning out, and in many cases leaving NHS general practice far earlier than they might otherwise have done. More must be done to keep our hard-working, experienced GPs in the profession for longer – not only are they vital to delivering vital care to over a million patients a day, but they have a huge amount of wisdom to impart to new colleagues.
"We need see more measures implemented to genuinely tackle soaring workload as a matter of urgency and efforts redoubled to cut red tape that diverts time away from patients, and we need to make the working environment in general practice supportive and sustainable, so that family doctors aren’t forced out of the profession. This would not just be in the best interests of GPs, but the NHS as a whole, and most importantly, our patients."