Surgeries in rural areas are “in crisis” due to difficulty recruiting GPs, senior doctors have claimed.
Doctors have told the BBC that the way in which surgeries are funded favours practices in towns and cities, with differences between urban and rural areas widening. A survey of 549 practices by the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) has warned that one in 10 family doctor roles in England are vacant. Nearly two-thirds of these are filled by locum (temporary) doctors.
The RCGP believes a lack of supply could be a barrier to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans for seven-day GP opening, which it last week called “unachievable”.
RCGP chair Maureen Baker said “Our new research brings home how difficult GP practices are finding it to recruit new doctors and retain existing ones.
“It is simply unrealistic to be thinking about seven-day working when our existing five-day service and out of hours GP services are under so much pressure.”
Doctors in rural areas have suggested there is no demand for weekend appointments and that local patients are well-served by 12-hour Monday to Friday opening.
Hunt, however, says the government is committed to funding £5,000 more GPs by 2020, what he calls the largest single increase in GP recruitment in NHS history. He argues that people should not to have take time off work, potentially risking losing wages, to see their GP during the working week.
The Conservative pledge to ensure GP access seven days a week was first announced at their 2014 party conference, repeated in the party’s manifesto and reiterated by David Cameron in his first major speech since forming a majority government. The Prime Minister spoke about “a modern NHS working for you seven days a week – when you need it, where you need it”.
But the British Medical Association (BMA) has also questioned whether a sufficient number of doctors will be found given the recruitment problems reported. The BMA’s Dr Peter Holden says rural practices all over the UK are one retirement away from collapse. “Because rural practices tend to be smaller, they have less resilience”, he added.
GP shortages in rural areas have also been highlighted in Scotland and Wales, particularly in some of the more remote areas. The RCGP in Wales has said more Welsh GPs are leaving work than the number of young medical graduates looking to train as GPs.