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Up to 730,000 extra mental health referrals to put ‘significant’ pressure on general practice

by Jess Hacker
4 October 2021

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It is estimated that up to 730,000 additional referrals for mental health services could be made each year, which would place ‘significant additional pressure on general practice’.

New research by the Health Foundation, published this weekend (1 October), found there could be an additional 300,000–730,000 referrals annually for these services between now and 2024.

The Foundation warned that the peak of activity is expected in 2021/22, with up to 1,590,000 additional referrals arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

It added that while not everyone referred will enter treatment, an average of 210,000–520,000 will each year, of which almost 40% would be referred to primary care or psychological therapies (IAPT) services.

‘Most mental health referrals come through primary care, which implies a significant additional pressure on general practice,’ the research said.

The additional cost of the Covid-19 pandemic for mental health services could range from £1.6bn to £3.6bn over the next 4 years, it said: an annual average of £400m–£900m.

This report is the latest to highlight the impact the pandemic is expected to have on mental health pathways, particularly among children and young people.

Analysis of NHS data conducted by Mind last month found that in June alone, 417,820 children were in contact with mental health services: the highest figure to date, almost double that in 2016.

Similarly, the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that the number of under-19s waiting for urgent treatment for eating disorders tripled during the pandemic, while the number waiting for routine support more than quadrupled.

Nearly 500,000 extra staff needed by 2030

The report found that as many as 488,000 health care staff across the disciplines could be needed by 2030/31 to meet demand for NHS services and to recover from the pandemic.

The Health Foundation flagged that this expansion of the workforce would be  the equivalent of a 40% increase: double the growth seen in the last decade.

Alongside this, 627,000 extra social care staff would also be required, equivalent to 55% growth over the next decade.

Factors driving this include an ageing population, rising numbers of people with long-term chronic health problems, and a backlog for care which now sits at 5.6 million patients.

Given the time it takes to train new staff, it added that the findings ‘call into question the extent to which it will be possible’ to address the backlog within the decade without a funding boost for training.

It said that a hiring boost would require ‘significantly more funding’ over the next decade, and that the Government’s recent funding settlement will only ‘go some way’ to helping the recovery.

The report added that funding for the NHS alone would need to grow at twice the rate of the last decade. This would mean increases of at least 3.2% annual real terms funding: around £70bn extra by 2030/31.

Anita Charlesworth, the Health Foundation’s director of research, said that without action taken now, the NHS is ‘likely to face a decade of increasing staff shortages’.

Meanwhile, in response to the report Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers said that ‘persistent staff shortages have normalised excessive workloads and stress at work across the NHS, which has led to the loss of far too many of our highly valued staff’.