GP practices in England delivered an estimated 31,591,589 appointments in May, according to the latest figures from NHS Digital.
The total includes 23.6m standard appointments – more than half of which were delivered face-to-face – and nearly 8m carried out as part of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
Combined with data for the previous two months, the figures show practices delivered more than 97.5m appointments over the three-month period from March to May. This is close to a third more than the figure for the equivalent period in 2019 – suggesting practices effectively delivered an extra month’s worth of appointments in March to May this year.
The BMA’s GP committee warned this week that general practice is already ‘buckling under intense workload pressure’ – and that rapidly rising levels of COVID-19, with more than 90,000 new cases in the past 48 hours alone – threaten to push that pressure up even higher.
Meanwhile, although the latest appointments data show clearly that the profession is facing heavy workload, the figures are still likely to significantly underestimate true levels of GP workload.
NHS Digital says telephone triage and home visits are not counted properly in its statistics, and that ‘list appointments’ in which a GP may call multiple patients are often recorded as a single event in practice IT systems.
Notes on the latest appointments data say that ‘many telephone triage and home visits appear as one long blocked period of time which are not booked to individual patients’ – and that ‘unless home visits and telephone triage are logged as individual appointments and booked to a patient they will not appear in this publication’.
The notes also highlight ‘an increase in the use of list appointments, in which several patients are contacted but only one notional appointment slot appears in the collected data’.
GPonline has also reported on figures from the RCGP research and surveillance centre that show clinical administrative work has risen by around a third compared to pre-pandemic levels as practices deal with growing numbers of prescriptions, referral letters, messages to patients and other tasks.
The latest appointments data comes as a report from the Academy of Medical Sciences warned that GP practices would need additional support to cope with pressure this winter – and that bureaucracy must be pared back by halting CQC inspections and tick-box targets.
GP leaders have also called a decision from NHS England to reject calls for COVID-19 booster jabs to be delivered at practice level ‘incredibly frustrating’, warning it threatens to add unnecessarily to workload.
Both the RCGP and the BMA’s GP committee commented on workload earlier this week. BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said summer normally offered a ‘quieter period’ for general practice, but that there was no evidence of a drop in workload this year.
He said ongoing heavy workload had left primary care staff with no time to ‘recharge and to prepare for what’s going to be one of the worst winters that they’ve experienced’.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘GPs and our teams are already working under intense workload and workforce pressures, making record numbers of patient consultations as well as delivering around two thirds of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.’