Elderly and vulnerable patients at risk as 1,200 GP practices close
More than 1,200 GP practices have closed in eight years, forcing elderly and vulnerable patients to travel ever further for care, an investigation reveals.
NHS data show the number of practices in England is now the lowest on record - forcing the number of patients per surgery to an all-time high.
Shortages of GPs have seen surgeries closing and merging to cover ever greater populations, with rural areas among the most stretched.
Leading doctors said the situation had reached a point of “crisis”, which Labour said had left too many people struggling to see a GP, or travelling miles to do so.
It comes as ministers prepare to publish a “recovery plan” to rescue GP services and a long-delayed workforce strategy, in order to train thousands more medics to plug gaps.
The NHS figures show 6,418 practices were open in January of this year - a fall of 1,205 since September 2015.
As a result, the number of patients per practice has reached almost 10,000, with each surgery now having to serve an extra 2,241 patients on average, and patients forced to travel longer distances.
In many cases, elderly and vulnerable patients are being left without any local GP.
In the last 12 months, 158 practices in England have closed, Neil O’Brien, Health Minister, admitted in a recent parliamentary answer.
“Practices close for a variety of reasons, including mergers or retirement,” he said, insisting that NHS commissioners must put in place “appropriate measures” to ensure affected patients have access to GP services, he told the Commons.
Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, said: “After 13 years of Conservative failure to train enough doctors or reform primary care, patients are finding it impossible to see a doctor when they need.
“The closures of hundreds of practices has left people travelling for miles for appointments, while patients are increasingly seen by a different doctor each time.”
Labour promises to ‘bring back the family doctor’
He said Labour would double medical school places, in order to train the medics needed, to “bring back the family doctor”.
Amid record shortages of NHS workers - with around 130,000 vacancies - the Chancellor is currently working on plans for an expansion of medical training, including thousands of apprentice places for doctors and nurses to train on the job.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Sometimes GP practices close as the result of a merger with another practice in order to pool resources and deliver services more efficiently, but when the reason for closing a practice is linked to workforce and workload pressures, the impact on the practice’s patients and staff – indeed entire communities – is significant.
“This can particularly be the case in more remote areas, where GPs are often even more scarce than in built-up areas, and this can result in patients having real difficulty accessing a GP practice within a reasonable distance from their homes.”
She said shortages of GPs meant too many practices were being forced to close, adding: “Decades of underfunding and poor resource planning have left general practice in crisis.”
At the previous election, ministers promised to increase the number of GPs by 6,000, but numbers have fallen, with 843 fewer doctors than in 2019.
Increasing numbers of GPs are working part time, with the average family doctor now working three days.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We’re making progress to help patients see their GP quickly – with more than 400 additional doctors in general practice compared to a year ago, face-to-face appointments increasing by 10 per cent and recruiting more than 25,000 additional staff – almost hitting our target of 26,000 – who are supporting doctors, nurses and providing care to patients.
“Alongside investing record sums to upgrade and modernise NHS buildings, we are putting in at least £1.5 billion to create an additional 50 million general practice appointments a year by 2024.”
“Innovative approaches to building GP practices such as repeatable, energy efficient modular designs are starting to be used and we looking into the potential of expanding these more widely.”