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GP surgery closures displace 200,000 patients

GP shortages to blame, say lead doctors

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

GP shortages, funding cuts and rising workloads are responsible for a rapid rise in GP surgery closures, senior doctors warn.

An investigation by Pulse magazine, this week, reveals that the number of patients displaced by surgery closures has risen by 50% in a year, with 200,000 patients in 2015 forced to register with a new GP or travel further to see their existing one. 

Pulse reports that the number of practices either closing or shutting down branches rose by 40%. Figures show that last year, 31 GP practices in England shut, and 41 branch surgeries closed as a result of mergers.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, says a “severe shortage of GPs” is to blame for many of the closures.

“A GP practice might close because surgeries are merging or forming a federation with other practices to pool their resources in the best interests of patient care – something that the College supports,” she explains.

“But when this happens in some areas, particularly remote and rural areas, it can impact on our patients’ access to care, and every effort must be taken to avoid this.

“Decisions to merge practices are taken extremely seriously and the potential displacement of patients is a key consideration, even if the move is temporary. Wherever possible, efforts are made to ensure that patients are transferred to a practice nearby with minimal disruption.”

However, she adds: “Unfortunately, we currently have a severe shortage of GPs across the UK and some practices are being forced to close simply because there are not enough GPs to run them or because workload pressures mean that they can no longer guarantee safe patient care.

“GPs and our teams are making in excess of 370m patient consultations a year to keep up with the demand of our growing and ageing population, with many patients presenting with multiple, complex conditions. This is 60m more consultations than five years ago, yet funding for general practice has declined dramatically in real terms over the last ten years, and our workforce has remained relatively stagnant.”

And she warns: “This is a genuine danger to patient safety – and to the wellbeing of hardworking family doctors and our teams.

“The Government has spoken of a package of measures to address the growing pressures facing general practice. It is essential that this includes more investment in general practice, initiatives to 'recruit retain and return' thousands more GPs and practice staff, and measures to cut unnecessary red tape that is taking family doctors away from frontline patient care.”

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, says: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for small practices to cope with rising levels of bureaucracy and manage their workload. Often they work in inner-city areas serving deprived communities which can be really quite challenging. They haven’t had the investment in premises and other types of development, so it’s very difficult to attract new GPs to go in there and work alongside them.”

In response to Pulse’s investigation, the Department of Health has said the figures represent “less than 1% of the total number of GP practices in England.” 

NHS England told OnMedica: "The pressures on GPs are real, but given there are over 8,500 GP surgeries, 72 mergers or closures is a tiny proportion. What’s more, over the last decade, GP numbers have been going up at exactly the same time as the number of smaller practices has been going down - the reason being that GPs are increasingly choosing to work in bigger teams, which often means they can offer patients a wider range of services at more convenient times.”

However, the Patients Association describes the data as “worrying” and calls for further investment to help train and retain GPs.

“This investigation highlights the desperate situation that primary care services in England find themselves in. We hear from so many patients on our Helpline who are struggling to access their GP, with a number particularly concerned about their GP practice merging with others around them. Closing surgeries limits access to care and patient choice,” says Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association.

She adds: “The increase in the number of patients having to travel further to visit their GP is particularly worrying. Many elderly and vulnerable patients are often unable to travel far to visit their GP. Primary care services are vital for their safety and wellbeing and must be as accessible as possible.

“The Patients Association understands that many GP surgeries are struggling to cope due to a lack of funding, and a shortage of frontline staff. There must be further investment to help train and retain GPs, practice nurses and pharmacists in order to give patients the care that they need. Without stronger support for GPs, primary care services will continue to be unable to meet the needs of patients.”

The investigation by Pulse reveals the premises that closed or merged served 206,269 patients, compared to 43,000 patients who experienced similar problems in 2013.

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