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Why is the UK facing a GP shortage?

Thursday 16th April 2015
A new BMA report warns of an approaching GP staffing crisis, with one in three members of the profession considering retirement in the next five years. Image Credit: iStock/stockyimages
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GPs hold a vital position in the UK's health system. Often the first line of care, they also help to relieve the strain on accident and emergency departments, and can ensure patients are referred to the right service-givers.

But a stark new report warns that in just a few years' time, there simply won't be enough GPs to carry out these essential roles. So why is this shortfall going to happen, and what can we do to prevent it?

An ageing GP workforce, and an ageing population

It's no secret that the UK population is getting older. By 2050, the number of people aged over 65 is expected to almost double on 2010 levels to 19 million, placing greater pressure on the health service, with average spending for retired households almost double the amount for non-retired households.

And the GPs who'll be tasked with looking after many of these extra patients aren't getting any younger either. According to a new survey carried out by the British Medical Association and ICM involving more than 15,500 GPs, one in three members of the profession are considering retirement in the next five years. Furthermore, three in ten respondents revealed they were contemplating becoming part-time.

GPs are being lured overseas

But age isn't the only factor to consider. General practice is also facing retention difficulties, with a fifth of trainees hoping to move abroad by 2020 - a sentiment echoed by nine per cent of all GPs. A further seven per cent admitted they would consider quitting medicine completely.

The challenges of being a GP

Unsurprisingly, the demands of the job were also a factor for many of those surveyed. Although more than two-thirds insisted their workload is manageable, they still said their work-related stress levels are significant. One in six went even further, declaring their stress to be significant and unmanageable.

Excessive workload was cited by 71 per cent of respondents asked to name factors that had a negative impact on their desire to continue being GPs. Just over half (54 per cent) flagged up unresourced work being move to general practice, while 43 per cent mentioned not being able to spend enough time with patients. 

Despite all of these factors, it should be pointed out that 47 per cent of those surveyed would recommend becoming a GP, compared to just 35 per cent who wouldn't advocate the career choice.

What can be done to fill vacant GP jobs?

Clearly, steps need to be taken to entice more people into jobs as GPs before a staffing crisis hits. 

BMA GPs committee chair Chaand Nagpaul questioned general election pledges from many of the major parties regarding the recruitment of more GPs. "Rather than playing a numbers game, we need politicians to focus on addressing the pressures facing GP services so that we retain the current GP workforce and attract young doctors to become GPs," he said.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) pointed out that the cost of putting a family doctor through post-graduate training runs to £247,000, highlighting the importance of recruiting, retaining and returning as many GPs to frontline care in the UK as possible.

Doing this will cost money. At present, GPs conduct 90 per cent of patient contacts in the NHS, yet their share of the health service budget is just 8.4 per cent. The RCGP wants this figure to be increased to 11 per cent, and for an additional 10,000 family doctors to be recruited across the UK by 2020.

Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said: "This would allow us to deliver more services for patients, away from hospitals - where care is more expensive - and close to home, where our patients want and need care most."

Written by Martin Lambert

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