GP shortages in England have been widely reported for a number of years. A previous government ambition in 2015 to boost GP numbers by 5,000 by 2020 was nowhere close to being achieved. In fact, over this period, the number of GPs fell by 321 full-time equivalents. History seems to be repeating itself, with the trend of GPs continuing to decrease against the new target of 6,000 more GPs set by this government two years ago.
On top of this, there are large differences in the number of GPs between different areas, even when accounting for the needs of the patient population. Hull reports the highest number of patients per GP, at 2,804, compared to 1,318 patients per GP in the Wirral. But there seems to be a worryingly high number of patients per GP in London, the east of England and the South East, as indicated by the darker purple shaded areas in the map below.
Differences in the numbers of staff available can increase inequalities in accessing health care services, which in turn may impact on the quality of care and widen the gap in health outcomes and experiences for patients.
Efforts have been made to reduce stark differences in staffing levels between regions. For instance, a recruitment scheme offers a one-off £20,000 supplement to GP trainees who choose to work in ‘under-doctored’ areas. While uptake of this scheme appears encouraging, the impact of this initiative on longer-term retention is not clear, but recent research shows that GP workforce shortages continue to disproportionately affect more deprived areas.
However, compared to the year 2000, while the number of GP trainees has increased over four-fold, this has not yet translated into increased numbers of permanent, fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs (the total number of which across the country has barely changed over the last 21 years).
These shortages are particularly concerning as the NHS heads into the winter period, with staff absences typically being higher at this time of year, not to mention the low morale among GPs, which has been particularly notable in recent weeks. This is in parallel with uncertainty around the level of additional pressure that the flu season will bring, catching up on routine services, and administering Covid-19 booster vaccinations.