The number of fully-qualified GPs in England has fallen by 441 over the past year, according to figures published by NHS Digital.
Experimental GP workforce data showed that there were 28,697 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs in March 2019 – 1.5% lower than March 2018 which had 29,138.
In the last quarter, the number of qualified permanent GPs (excluding registrars and locums) from abroad has also declined. There were 269 fewer GPs (headcount) from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) than in December 2018, and 96 fewer GPs (headcount) from the EEA.
The headcount of GP partners also dropped to 21,591 – down 3.6% compared to last year.
It comes after Prime Minister Theresa May promised to recruit 5,000 extra GPs ‘as soon as possible’.
Heath secretary Matt Hancock said in January that the target would not be met by 2020, as former health secretary Jeremy Hunt had pledged in 2015, but that he hoped it would be ‘sooner’ than the next five years.
The workforce data also showed there had been a 0.9% rise in FTE GPs in England overall between March 2018 and March 2019 – to 34,736.
The number of registrars had seen an uplift, with 149 more in England than in December 2018 (headcount), and a 12% rise since March 2018 which had 5,411 registrars.
But, there was a 4.7% decrease in EEA-qualified registrars (headcount).
NHS England is due to publish official figures next month on how many GPs have been recruited through the international GP recruitment scheme.
Tower Hamlets LMC chair Dr Jackie Applebee has said the figures demonstrate that GP partners are ‘voting with their feet’ when it comes to dealing with the stress and pressure of the profession.
She said: ‘I think this underlines that doctors are not choosing to be GP partners. They want a decent work-life balance and don’t see the current pressures that partners are under can give them this. Partners have the risks of running a small business to deal with such as premises and staff, in addition to the constant risk that all GPs hold clinically. More and more doctors are voting with their feet and saying that ‘the clinical risk is enough thank you,’ without the added stresses of running a small business.
‘In the current climate of increasing private sector involvement in the NHS, the demise of partnerships is worrying. Most GPs would far rather be employed by their partner colleagues rather than the likes of Virgin, but in a fully reinstated, publicly provided NHS. The salaried GP option – where the NHS is the employer (and by this, I don’t mean foundation trusts, for example, but a proper nationally run NHS) could be attractive to many more.’
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey, responded to the figures stating that the decline of GP partners was ‘worrying’ and that ‘punitive tax payments related to the current pensions arrangements’ are having a direct impact of GP retention.
He said: ‘These figures do show a recent rise in overall GP numbers, including those in training, but it is nowhere near sufficient to deal with the reality of what is needed to address the crisis facing general practice. The steady increase in patient demand coupled with hundreds fewer full-time equivalent GPs means that practices across the country are being placed under tremendous pressure and leaving too many patients waiting too long to see their GP.
‘Whilst there has been a modest increase in the number of salaried GPs in practices, worryingly the number of GP partners continues to show a stark decline highlighting the pressures faced by partners, who take on risks that are increasingly seen as outweighing the benefits of running their own practices. Punitive tax payments related to the current pensions arrangements are also having a serious impact on the retention of these GPs and must be addressed quickly by government.
‘It is good to see an increase in the number of other healthcare professionals working in general practice and while funding for the expansion of primary care network workforce allocated as part of the GP contract will eventually see a more sustained primary care workforce, there is still much to be done to address the lack of GPs on the frontline as many continue to struggle with rising patient demand.’
Earlier in March, a report by three major think tanks concluded that GP numbers will have 7,000 fewer FTE GPs by 2024, despite the increase in GP trainees.
This comes as an official review of the Babylon GP at Hand model said the NHS should consider Babylon’s workforce model to ease the recruitment crisis.
This article was first published by our sister publication Pulse.