Good access to general practice is an important element of the quality of care. The GP Patient Survey gives patients the opportunity to feed back about their experiences of their GP practice and other local NHS services, and answer questions on a range of issues such as access to services.
The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic caused considerable changes to how patients access GP services. The number of appointments in general practice fell sharply during the first wave of Covid-19, and many practices rapidly adopted a ‘digital first’ service. This meant that all consultations where possible took place by phone or video, in order to maintain services while reducing the chance of infection. There was also a move towards “total triage” where patients provide some information on their reasons for contacting the practice and are triaged before making an appointment.
GP Patient Survey respondents were asked, “Generally, how easy is it to get through to someone at your GP practice on the phone?”. The majority of patients found it easy (‘very easy’ or ‘fairly easy’), however this proportion fell from 81% in 2012 to 65% in 2020, increasing slightly to 68% in 2021. The proportion of patients who found it ‘not at all easy’ to get through to someone at their GP practice on the phone increased from 5% to 13% over the same time period, before falling slightly to 12% in 2021. People who responded ‘haven’t tried’ have been excluded for comparison purposes.
Since 2018, GP Patient Survey respondents have been asked “How easy is it to use your GP practice’s website to look for information or access services?”. Between 2018 and 2021, the proportion of patients who found it ‘very easy’ or ‘fairly easy’ decreased slightly from 78% to 75%. The proportion of patients who found it ‘not at all easy’ remained constant at 7%, while the proportion who said it was ‘not very easy’ increased slightly from 15% to 17%. People who responded ‘haven’t tried’ have been excluded for comparison purposes.
In 2019, an average of 25 million appointments took place in general practice each month. Of these, 42% took place on the same day as booking (10.5 million appointments), 20% within two to seven days of booking (5 million appointments) and 14% within 8 to 14 days (3.5 million appointments).
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of appointments in general practice fell by a third, from 24 million in March 2020 to 16 million in April 2020. However, the number of appointments taking place on the same day as booking remained roughly constant. The largest falls were for appointments taking place within 15 to 21 days of booking (a 77% fall, from 1.7 million to 404,500) and within 8 to 14 days (a 75% fall, from almost 3 million to 725,272).
Since then, the number of appointments has almost returned to levels seen before the pandemic. In July 2021, about 26 million appointments took place in general practice. Of these, almost 12 million took place on the same day as booking, 2 million took place within one day of booking, and more than 5 million took place within two to seven days.
Enabling patients to see or speak to the GP they prefer is important for continuity of care, and evidence suggests that it can lead to more satisfied patients and clinicians, reduce costs and result in better health outcomes.
Until 2017, GP Patient Survey respondents who stated that they have a doctor they prefer to see at their surgery were asked, "How often do you see or speak to the GP you prefer?". Between 2012 and 2017, the proportion of patients who ‘always or almost always' saw or spoke to the GP they prefer decreased from 42% to 33%. Those that 'never or almost never' saw or spoke to the GP they prefer increased from 6% to 9% over the same time period. This indicates that continuity of care in general practice may have worsened. Note that those who responded 'not tried at this GP surgery' were excluded for comparison purposes.
The 2018 GP Patient Survey altered the question slightly to, "How often do you see or speak to your preferred GP when you would like to?". Between 2018 and 2021, the proportion of patients who ‘almost or almost always’ saw or spoke to their preferred GP decreased from 26% to 22% and those that answered ‘never or almost never’ increased from 10% to 12%. These results are not directly comparable with previous surveys. See ‘About this data’ for further information.
About this data
GP Patient Survey
In 2018, two key changes were made to the GP Patient Survey:
- the content of the questionnaire was changed significantly to reflect changes in the delivery of primary care services in England.
- the sample frame was extended to include 16-17-year-olds for the first time to improve the inclusivity of the survey.
Analyses were carried out by Ipsos MORI to measure the impact of these changes on the comparability of trend data. These analyses found that most trend data were subject to context effects both as a result of changes to the questionnaire and the inclusion of 16-17-year-olds. As a result, two of the indicators presented here from the GP Patient Surveys carried out from 2018 onwards are not comparable with results from previous surveys. The question that asks, “Generally, how easy is it to get through to someone at your GP practice on the phone?” was not impacted by context effects or the inclusion of 16-17-year-olds, so is comparable over time at a national level.
The data was weighted to adjust for differences between all patients at a GP practice and the subset of patients who actually completed the questionnaire.
Fieldwork for the 2021 GP Patient Survey took place between 4 January and 6 April 2021. In 2020, fieldwork took place between 2 January and 6 April 2020. This means that some responses were collected after the Covid-19 outbreak began in England. Analysis was conducted to understand whether the pandemic had an impact on results. The analysis found that, as only 1.2% of responses were received after lockdown measures were implemented, the results of the survey and validity of comparisons with previous surveys were not impacted by the pandemic.
For more detailed information, please see the GP Patient Survey - Technical Annex.
NHS Digital data
NHS Digital publishes monthly data on the number of appointments taking place in general practice. The data are currently published as experimental statistics due to historical variations in practice coverage, but now covers approximately 95% of practices in England. Prior to July 2019, practices with less than 1,000 registered patients were excluded from the publication.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have affected data quality, as approaches to appointment management between practices has varied. For example, telephone or video appointments have increased and these do not have universal reporting standards. Therefore, caution should be taken when comparing data before and after February 2020.
For more information, see NHS Digital’s supporting information.