The figures reveal the extent to which the GP workforce is failing to keep pace with rising numbers of patients registered with practices – at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has sent demand spiralling.
Figures from NHS Digital show that in March 2016 there were 51.4 fully-qualified FTE GPs per 100,000 patients registered with a GP practice in England.
By March 2021, this figure had slumped to 46.3 – a staggering 10% decline over just five years that came as the government’s 2015 promise to deliver an extra 5,000 FTE GPs by 2020/21 failed to materialise.
BMA leaders warned that the GP workforce is ‘simply not growing fast enough’ to meet current or future demand – and warned the rapid slump in doctors per patient had left the future of the NHS as a whole ‘hanging in the balance.
GPonline reported this week that the number of FTE GPs had risen slightly over the past year – with numbers of salaried GPs in particular up, while partners remain in decline. However, the fully-qualified FTE GP workforce in March 2021 remains 5% down compared with March 2016.
Meanwhile, the number of patients registered with GP practices in England has risen by nearly 3.2m over the past five years, an increase of around 5.5%.
The rise in patient numbers has slowed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic – but even with repeated lockdowns and restrictions on travel, the number of people registered with a GP practice in England rose by around 240,000 between March 2020 and March 2021.
A further factor driving down the overall workforce is the continuing trend among GPs to reduce their working hours amid unmanageable pressure.
Despite record numbers of GPs in training and evidence that numbers of doctors leaving general practice are currently outnumbered by those joining, NHS Digital figures show the proportion of GPs working more than 37.5 hours per week slumped from 26.6% to 24.3% over the year to March 2021 alone, while the proportion of GPs working 15-37.5 hours or less than 15 hours increased.
The drop to less than one in four GPs working 37.5 hours or more – which may reflect the number of hours doctors are scheduled to work rather than the hours they actually work – reflects another rapid change in the workforce over the past five years. In March 2016, just under one in three GPs worked 37.5 hours or more.
BMA GP committee workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said the GP workforce was ‘simply not growing quickly enough to cope with current or future demand’.
He called the latest workforce data ‘yet another stark reminder of the ongoing workforce crisis currently facing the NHS’ – and called for greater efforts to retain experienced GPs.
Dr Kasaraneni said that BMA polling showed a workforce ‘pushed to their limits’. He said: ‘The bottom line is that the GP workforce is simply not growing quickly enough to cope with current or future demand. Without the workforce we need, especially as we look to the growing backlog, the future of the NHS hangs in the balance – and patients will continue to wait too long for the care they need.’