GPs should not be made scapegoats for political failings

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph article asked “If the GPs went on strike, would anybody notice?” The article claimed that no one would notice if GPs went on strike and the author suggested that making all GPs salaried, forcing them to work longer hours, would help improve general practice for patients. The author quoted “a now retired GP in his 90s from Bristol who continued doing locum work until five years ago,” who apparently said, “Many GPs are using covid-19 as an excuse for not providing good clinical services. Being able to opt out of night/weekend cover and only working two or three days a week have caused the demise of general practice to the detriment of patients.”

As GPs we have worked throughout this pandemic often face-to-face in the most basic of personal protective equipment (PPE), and we were disheartened to read this piece.

GPs and their teams have played an essential role throughout the pandemic. GP teams in England alone deal with over 300 million contacts each year. General Practices have been running community hot covid clinics, and supporting NHS 111 and the Covid Clinical Assessment Service (CCAS). We are supporting 5.5 million patients on NHS waiting lists, who are often in severe pain and in need of extra support, as well as supporting about 1 million patients with the effects of long covid, and adapting to new ways of working enforced by a global pandemic. In addition, our teams have delivered the majority of covid vaccinations thus far. We are currently being asked to recall our most clinically vulnerable patients for their third covid booster vaccination. All this has been achieved despite the proportion of the NHS budget spent on NHS general practice and the number of GPs per person both declining in England in recent years.

We are already seeing that any small reduction in GP access causes rapid spill over into Emergency Departments, so just imagine if there were no GP service at all. The NHS would collapse. When GPs began to pull back from the covid-19 vaccination programme because of the mass vaccine sites taking over, for example, the rate of vaccination slowed—especially in the hardest to reach groups—and complaints increased from patients unable to access vaccine appointments.

If we look at prescriptions, GPs and their teams issue a vast number every year. If another part of the NHS tried to take on this work, an army of people would be needed—doctors, pharmacists, and administrative staff. Many higher risk medications need careful monitoring and regular review. Patients on most regular medication also require medication reviews, checks (e.g., blood tests, measuring blood pressure) to monitor safe prescribing and prevent drug interactions, and to deal with queries and frequent shortages and changes of medicines. The efficient systems that GPs have developed for prescribing means that they issue many prescriptions that would be given by hospital specialists in other countries.

Moreover, every patient seen in secondary care generates a letter, often with requests for GP teams to follow up patients, monitor their treatment, arrange blood tests, or prescribe.

The work of a GP can be incredibly rewarding as we build long term relationships with people over years, and there is strong evidence for the benefits of continuity of care (for both patients and the care provider).  GPs are true “generalists” and the uncertainty of undifferentiated illness is stressful, especially when working remotely. GPs in the UK work at a higher level of intensity than elsewhere in Europe. GPs in the UK have the shortest consultation times in Europe, and UK GPs tend to see more than twice the safe recommended number of patients per day.

BMA appointment data show huge increases in activity over the past 18 months. Yes, there are more telephone appointments and fewer face to face appointments, but this is the same in all sectors of society—and the same for both community and hospital care. It should come as no surprise, or make headline news, because remote working is in line with direct government policy and is there to protect both patients and staff from a highly infectious and potentially lethal virus. It is especially important to protect the many vulnerable individuals we look after in general practice, in a time when there are over 30,000 covid-19 cases reported daily in the UK.

Despite political promises for an additional 6000 additional GPs in England by 2024, there has been a reduction in numbers rather than an increase. While there is a clear link between ratios of family doctors and life expectancy, the number of patients per practice is now 22% higher than it was in 2015, and the GP workforce has not grown with this demand. As a result, there are now just 0.46 fully qualified GPs per 1000 patients in England, down from 0.52 in 2015, which, when added to growing demand from the rising number of people living with complex chronic illness and poverty along with an ageing population, means that primary care is in a desperate situation. GP turnover is higher in deprived areas further exacerbating health inequalities.

Demand on general practice is increasing, while at the same time general practices are struggling to recruit staff. The current deepening GP crisis that we are facing is having widespread effects on patient care nationwide. The current crisis long predated covid-19, but the pandemic has highlighted the large cracks in the NHS. GP teams should not be made scapegoats for the political failings, under-funding, and shortages of essential staff, which are the root cause of the issue.

General practice is often described as the “Bedrock of the NHS,” and the NHS Five Year NHS View states that “if General Practice Fails the NHS Fails.” We must be mindful of that, and instead of blaming GPs for the current crisis, look at what can be urgently done to alleviate the crisis.

Simon Hodes, GP partner in Watford, GP trainer, appraiser and LMC rep. Twitter: @DrSimonHodes

Frances Mair, Norie Miller professor of general practice. Twitter: @FrancesMair

Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK, Twitter @Azeem_Majeed

This article was first published in BMJ Opinion.

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