GPs carried out a record number of appointments in England in October, with the highest proportion of patients seen face-to-face since the pandemic began, new figures show
Data from NHS Digital shows 32.0 million appointments were made this month, with the highest number on record dating back to November 2017.
More than seven in 10 people (71.3%) have been seen face-to-face, the highest rate since the coronavirus outbreak began, but still below pre-pandemic levels of around 80%.
Around 7.8 million (24.4%) appointments were conducted over the phone, the lowest proportion of phone appointments since February 2020, when it accounted for 13.8% of meetings.
Meanwhile, separate data from NHS Digital shows that the number of qualified full-time equivalent GPs in private practice has fallen for the fifth straight month year-on-year.
There were 26,791 permanent qualified general practitioners working in England in October this year, down 0.9% from 27,041 in October 2021.
This is followed by declines of 0.7% in September, 0.5% in August, 0.1% in July and 0.6% in June.
The numbers are the latest to suggest the start of a possible trend, although more data is needed to confirm if the numbers are on a clear downward path.
Statistics on the workforce of GPs can fluctuate from month to month, so year-on-year comparisons are a more reliable measure of long-term changes.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the data was “alarming” and new ways of working were not making up for the shortage of GPs.
The Vice-Chairman of the General Practitioners Committee, Dr. Kieran Sharrock, added: “Without the workforce and support we need, GPs will forever be trapped in a cycle of burnout and exhaustion, sacrificing their own well-being and pushing even more to reduce their hours or the NHS altogether leaving.
“These numbers show how busy practices are, particularly with the dramatic increase in seasonal vaccination appointments – but there is a limit to what GPs can safely do with such a depleted workforce.
“We need real solutions to the staffing crisis and to make the GP practice a safe place to work so doctors can continue treating patients.
“This includes the government addressing long-standing problems driving doctors away, such as unsafe and unsustainable workloads and punitive taxation rules on pensions.
“Only then can we offer our patients the care they need and deserve.”
The latest data comes along with new rankings showing how many appointments each practice in England offers and how long it takes to be seen, which the government says will help patients make “more informed decisions” about the practice they choose to take meeting.
However, leading GPs have expressed concern that the data is being used to compare practices without accounting for different patient characteristics.
For example, a coastal city with an older population may have doctor’s offices that offer fewer appointments than downtown offices that cater to a younger population.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, has urged the government to develop a recruitment and retention strategy that goes beyond its manifesto of 6,000 new GPs.
She added: “It is disappointing that the hard work of GP teams working in incredibly difficult circumstances is being overshadowed by the release of practice-level data that allows for arbitrary comparisons between practices.
“GP practices operate in different ways to accommodate different patient numbers, demographics and needs – they cannot be compared one-to-one so there is a risk that this will simply be used as a stick to beat those practices that are not as good work like others.
“Rather than focus on releasing data that undermines the hard work of GP teams and single out and demoralizing practices that may be struggling the most, government should focus on tackling the root cause of relentless workloads and staff pressures , under which GPs and our teams work, supporting them to provide quality and safe patient care.”
On Wednesday, medical leaders also raised concerns that more GPs are leaving the profession than entering it, after Health Education England (HEE) released new figures on the number of doctors entering GP training.
In 2022, 4,032 trainee GPs were placed in internships – meeting the government’s target for recruiting GP trainees, HEE said.
However, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) estimates that up to 19,000 GPs could leave the profession over the next five years due to high work pressures.
Former Health Minister Sajid Javid said earlier this year that the government was unlikely to honor the obligation due to the number of GPs retiring early.
However, the Department of Health and Social Care insisted it “will also meet its target of 26,000 additional primary care workers”.
Separate NHS Digital figures also showed that the number of written complaints about primary care – GPs and dentists – rose by 39.4% to 120,064 over 2021-22, with communication, clinical treatment and the attitude, behavior or values of staff being the main issues the most common reasons for family doctor practices are .
Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England, said: “These figures reflect the increasing dissatisfaction patients are reporting to us, particularly around access to GPs and dentists, and provide further evidence of the much-needed action to improve primary care .
“We know that patients appreciate the pressure that health and care services are under.
“Learning from complaints is one of the best ways the NHS can focus its resources on improving the patient experience.
“That gets to the heart of why people complain in the first place – they want care to change and improve so that others don’t have to suffer in the future.”