Over 200 English GP practices closed or merged in the year ending June 2017 – yet only eight new practices opened, the latest figures from NHS Digital reveal.
The report details the number of GP practices that opened, closed or merged in England between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017.
It also provides data by region, showing that the North of England suffered the most closures/mergers, followed by the South, which also saw no new practices open over the period.
The most new practices opened in the Midlands and East region, while London saw the fewest closures or mergers. Overall, almost half (47%) of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in England experienced GP practice closures or mergers.
Despite these closures, over 58 million patients were registered at GP practices in July 2017, 55,000 more than in the previous month and 2 million more than in June 2013 – highlighting the huge pressure facing practices across England.
The figures will come as little surprise to many practice managers, as several major practice closures have been reported on in recent months, including the closure of a 5,000 patient practice in Kent that failed to recruit any new GPs.
The latest attempt to solve the GP recruitment crisis includes plans to allow nurses and physician associates to study part-time for a medical degree, as reported yesterday (19 July) by Management in Practice’s sister publication, Pulse.
‘Crisis must be resolved’
Responding to the figures, Dr Richard Vautrey – recently elected chair of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) GP Committee – said this is yet more evidence that GP practices are at breaking point. He added ‘It is time for government and NHS England to step up their efforts to resolve this crisis before even more patients lose their much-loved local GP service.’
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said some practices counted in the figures may have closed as a result of working ‘at scale’, which can improve services by pooling resources.
Dr Ruth Chambers, partner in a Stoke-on-Trent practice and Clinical Chair at the local CCG, agreed that mergers may be more important than reflected by these figures, which don’t differentiate between practices closed and those that have merged with other surgeries over the year.
‘Our local picture is more about small practices merging in a mutually productive way rather than ‘closing’…this seems to be a path that practices are choosing to take for future sustainability as an independent provider and continuity of provision of good clinical care,’ she said.
Closure must be ‘last resort’
Indeed, as Professor Stokes-Lampard emphasised, closure is always a last resort: ‘When practices are being forced to close because GPs and their teams can no longer cope with ever-growing patient demand without the necessary funding and resources, it’s a huge problem.
‘GP practices are the lifeblood of our local communities so the complete closure of any practice will always be a last resort when all other options have proved unworkable,’ she said, calling for more funding for GPs and research into why practices are closing.